NYFF '99: Famed Brit director Mike Leigh Subverts the Period Piece with "Topsy-Turvy"
by Stan Schwartz
Fans of Mike Leigh will be surprised by his newest film, “Topsy-Turvy,” a joyous biographical look at Gilbert and Sullivan, the 19th century composer/librettist duo who put English comic opera on the map for all time. In its depiction of the creation and rehearsal of the first production of “The Mikado,” “Topsy-Turvy” couldn’t be more different from what we’ve come to expect from the maker of “Naked,” “Secrets and Lies” and any number of other brilliant and gritty examinations of the contemporary British working class. The new film features a large cast of Leigh regulars, lush period costumes, and exuberant musical sequences. And of course, it’s peopled with characters all of whom are real-life historical figures.
Given all that, it seemed unlikely that Leigh approached the new film in his trademark, iconoclastic way, whereby he and the actors commence work with no script whatsoever and spend months improvising from scratch, incrementally creating characters and situations. But at the Festival press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Leigh walked on stage amidst warm applause (accompanied by the film’s two stars, Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner, both of whom turn in sublime performances), and stated that he had, in fact, employed his usual working methods.
“It also involved a good amount of research,” Leigh added. “But in principal, we worked on it much as we always do. There was no script to start with. Actually, I don’t know how one could have made this film by any other means. I don’t think we could have arrived at what we hope is as truthful a film as this tries to be without working at it in an organic way, bringing into existence this whole world just as we normally do with a contemporary film.”
Leigh went on to explain how all the painstaking research allowed the six months of improvisation to proceed within historically accurate parameters. This was particularly crucial to the portrait of the women in the protagonists’ lives — Gilbert’s wife Kitty and Sullivan’s mistress, Mrs. Fanny Ronalds. “We perhaps know more about Sullivan’s relationship with Mrs. Ronalds because he kept diaries and it’s fairly clear what sort of relationship it was. Gilbert’s relationship with his wife Kitty is really enigmatic. We’ve done what I’d have thought responsible biographers at first glance should do, which is to take what you can find out and then really start to breath life into it. But then, since we don’t have the responsibility of being biographers as such, we take the liberty of creating a living character.”
Curiously, Leigh is quick to point out that he does not consider the film to be a musical. What it is, certainly, is a period piece, but what is fascinating is how Leigh set out to subvert the period piece genre by making “a film in which people are like people really are.” Leigh continued, “And since it seemed to me more ‘naughty’ to take a ‘chocolate box’ subject and subvert that, than do the more obvious thing, like making a film about poverty in the East End of London in 1885 — which you might normally otherwise expect that I would do,” he said, accompanied by general laughter in the audience. “It seemed to me there was more scope for ‘naughtiness’ in subverting a ‘chocolate box’ subject by looking at in a serious and real way.”
Usually, historical dramas are about big events, but in his notion of “subversion,” Leigh was after the intimate moments that happen between the big events. “Who you are, where you slept last night, what you had for breakfast, what it’s like when you go to the lavatory. Those are the things that are the stuff of living and