By Indiewire | Indiewire October 4, 1999 at 2:00AM
NYFF REVIEW: Comedic "Topsy-Turvy" Delivers Top-Notch Performances
by Ray Pride
During an 1884 London heat wave, the collaboration of composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) and librettist W. S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) is melting down, and worse, their latest work is flopping at Richard D'Oyly Carte's Savoy Theater box office. Tempers flare between stuffy gentleman Gilbert and libertine Sullivan. They're respected, wealthy, bored with each other. Sullivan turns down a predictable libretto by Gilbert. When Gilbert is inspired by a visit to a Japanese art exhibit to write "The Mikado," the stage is set for "Topsy-Turvy," Mike Leigh's unlikely comedy of backstage prickliness and privilege.
While the film is what Leigh labels a "chocolate-box subject," he worked in his usual diligent manner. The historical elements are grounded in research, yet the script evolved from improvisations. It's a sneaky film: through play with period film conventions, Leigh composes an essential metaphor for the art of theater, a vessel for dramatizing what actors and directors do in confecting their craft. There are a couple of token horse-and-carriage shots at the start, but the rest of the tale plays out entirely in interiors -- drawing rooms, restaurants, stages, dressing rooms, boudoirs -- all stages upon which to play. (That is their world.)
The acting is surpassingly fine, on levels both broad and intimate, as one expects in Leigh's work, but two roles are magnificent. Broadbent's Gilbert starts as a grave stuffed shirt, resentful at being dubbed "the king of topsy-turvydom" by the Times of London. His comic prickliness and sense of entitlement is epic throughout. Timothy Spall ("Secrets and Lies") is a wonderment as well, as a member of the Savoy stock company, eventual taking on the title role in "The Mikado." In his wonderful first scene, he and a fellow actor backstage share a cracked, polyglot of phrases culled on the continent like steamer trunk stickers. And he gets the most ripely solemn moment as well, and it's pitched and played Beckett-perfect. Here's how he mourns a moment shorn from his performance: "Laughter. Tears. Curtain."
There are broad bits, too. Early on, much of the conversation is filled with commonplaces about food and family; Leigh continues to pursue, even in period drag, a philosophy that boils down to showing life is it is lived, lunch as it is eaten. Egos are there to be punctured: the 157-minute running time is studded with classic, actorish perturbations -- the self-aware behaving monstrously, but nonetheless unable to admit it amid the verbal circumlocutions of the era and their trade. Gilbert does allow himself to say of "The Mikado" that "It is only low burlesque performed in a small theater on the river Thames," but wouldn't suffer it from anyone else.
Leigh's camera is restrained, but supple whenever we shift from proscenium-style masters. The actors are placed just so in frames, and often work with objects and props as much as text. A good example: the first scene shared by the sparring Gilbert and Sullivan finds them comically sucking on lump sugar.
Most impressive is an astonishing interlude that transforms the film into something more mysterious, less presentational. When Gilbert visits the monumental Japanese art exhibit, the style is transformed, alongside Broadbent's shocked, marveling, wide-eyed wonder. Leigh seems to bow toward his Asian masters, such as Ozu and Mizoguchi, in some of the presentation, but here's the oddest insight of the scene: the formal dress of the Japanese enacting their cultural rituals looks less antiquated and anachronistic to the contemporary eye than the top-hatted and bowlered men looking at them. The gravy: Broadbent's Gilbert in close-up, watching a martial arts stick fight that whooshes between his face and the camera, face twitching joyously as he experiences rare, improbable inspiration.
Note, too, the lengthy rehearsal room scene in which Gilbert is shown inventing with his lead actors the role of the modern stage director, working on delivery, wordplay, and pacing, beat for beat for beat. You can't help but read Leigh's own story-making style into that of Gilbert and Sullivan. But his is more complex, a different order of fun.
[Ray Pride is a contributing editor to FILMMAKER Magazine and longtime film critic for Chicago's Newcity. He is also a screenwriter and filmmaker.]