Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Dir. Mike Leigh. Starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Michael Savage

Some movies are perfect in the grammatical, Latin sense. Casablanca is a perfect movie. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a perfect movie. So are The Leopard, Ordet, and The Thin Red Line.  (Making a list of “perfect movies” might be a potentially fatal wormhole.) These movies accomplish: at the end, each one of those films is done. Regardless of how torturous or arduous or infamous the production and post-production, the movie itself is perfect. It has told the story and nothing is missing, needs to be added to, or has to be altered. A perfect movie is not necessarily flawless, nor should it automatically be placed at the apex of achievement by critics. Offhand, I can’t recall any bad perfect movies, but sometimes a messy movie is stronger overall. Casablanca is not quite the equal of Apocalypse Now, for example. Topsy-Turvy, even if it is on first glance less august than the pictures I’ve alluded to, is a perfect movie. It tells a complete story, with a brief pair of epilogues attached before the “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze” closing. I know as much as I have to know about Gilbert (Broadbent) and Sullivan (Corduner), from temperament to CV to family life to whims. One learns about the various Savoyards, from D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) to Leonora Braham (Shirley Henderson) to George Grossmith (Martin Savage). Leigh and company are effortless in showcasing them in particular, refreshing the movie just when it might have been a little heavy on Gilbert and Sullivan. As opening night for The Mikado looms larger in the rearview, so too do men and women who were merely faces. Richard Temple, (Timothy Spall), the bass-baritone, continues to lose his edge and needs his castmates to stand up for him. Leonora’s drinking and Grossmith’s morphine habits take their toll. No action is forced and no hand overplayed. The result is an absolutely magnificent and even-handed command of tone and mood as we get to know, in small ways, these secretive Victorians who are living lives every bit as sinful and sad as our own; it’s “just personal.” It is perfect because, given the basic facts of funding, staffing, plot, etc., there couldn’t have been a better movie in the works than the one that was released.

I cannot adequately express how gratifying it is to watch a movie about music which does not treat its songs like a wrapped-up parcel for its audience to open and squeal over. Walk the Line and La vie en rose and Across the Universe all do that, just to name three movies of varying quality which use their popular tunes as a crutch. Even Amadeus is occasionally guilty of this sin, squeezing in Mozart’s greatest hits with a little extra gusto. For as many Gilbert and Sullivan numbers as Topsy-Turvy squeezes in, including bits from Princess Ida and The Sorcerer as well as The Mikado, it never feels like the movie is winking at us. This is not a jukebox musical; if the songs are in there, it’s because they have some job to do. “A More Humane Mikado” turns into a referendum on Temple’s sense of self-purpose. “Incantation,” from The Sorcerer, is one of the several places in the film where Leigh gets to show off the quirks of the Victorian era. (Other highlights: the telephone, the reservoir pen.) Whether or not one needs to be a Gilbert and Sullivan fan to like the movie is not a question I can adequately answer. I like their work on the whole, but I’d hardly describe myself as a devotee. If one absolutely abhors operetta, then one probably will have a hard time with this movie in the same way that hating glam rock will probably turn one off of Velvet Goldmine. All the same, I don’t think one needs an ounce of familiarity with Gilbert and Sullivan or The Mikado to make the movie work for them. The joy in the movie is not in recreating numbers but in recreating people.

The perfection of this movie is exemplified in one scene with Grossmith, Jessie Bond (Dorothy Atkinson), and Barrington (Vincent Franklin) rehearsing a scene under Gilbert’s strict supervision. All of them are off book (especially Gilbert), though Grossmith is frequently tripped up by tiny differences between his reminiscence and Gilbert’s exacting adherence to the script and to his own vision. Aside from mixing up “cock-and-bull” and “cock-and-a-bull” and things like that, Grossmith occasionally tries out interpretations which are quickly shot down. He plays his part Cockney at one point, which Gilbert dismisses instantly, and from the very beginning changes his character’s attitude. He is a little too smarmy for Gilbert’s taste. Let me remind you that you are in danger of being executed by “something lingering,” Gilbert says. Grossmith does it better. It is a long scene—though not one of those one-take masterpieces like this movie executes elsewhere—involving remarkable line recall. In real life, it would be pure drudgery, the sort of hard work of acting that most of us prefer to take for granted. In the movie it’s a marvelous testament to details and perfectionism. Gilbert is a perfectionist and highly detail-oriented; this is the man whose oeuvre includes some of the most filled-to-the-brim patter songs in the history of musical theater, and Broadbent plays him that way. The rehearsal scene gives us bits of Grossmith’s humor, Barrington’s amiability, Bond’s vapidity, Gilbert’s adamance, and on top of all that gives Seymour (Nicholas Woodeson), one of the various Savoy backstage personages, a little time in the sun. There’s a species of good acting on display in which we just get the people being portrayed, even if they aren’t always the star in the moment. In the same way that some singing is good simply by the fact of its comprehensibility, some acting is good because we know the characters at speed.

Savage as Grossmith stands out to me, as does Henderson’s Braham. Grossmith, after a jovial (and disastrous) oyster lunch in one scene, proving himself to be the life of whichever party he chooses to be, starts to lose his grip. Virtually all of his appearances after his performance in rehearsal are marred by his morphine use. His dress rehearsal performance earns a rebuke from Gilbert. He is nervous and edgy with Sullivan (Corduner) in his dressing room before opening night. His face (in one of those close-ups that Leigh uses throughout the movie) is mooning and sad as he sticks himself with his needle, but the relief on his face is palpable even as he mops up the blood in his arm. When Grossmith isn’t so pathetic, he’s dangerously funny. In one of those aforementioned one-shot wonders, he’s practicing a trio under Sullivan’s supervision. While one of his partners is singing, he decides to bounce up and down with a genuine pleasure in his step. It’s not a real English movie unless someone calls someone else a Philistine, and Grossmith drops that bomb on Barrington with a perfect under-his-breath comment.

Braham is less inclined to those chortling or sly moments than Grossmith, or maybe anyone at all. Henderson is sublime in just about everything she does here, from the way she murmurs all of her lines to the way she presses her glass goblet against her lips. Our first introduction to Braham is between acts of The Sorcerer. Jessie has gotten nine letters from admirers; Leonora has none. She has lost one husband, is raising a son, and as she gets older and stays single, her alcoholism takes up enough of the empty space in her life that D’Oyly Carte actually talks to her about it before The Mikado goes into rehearsals. The costumer (Alison Steadman) has designed, at Gilbert’s request, costumes without corsets,which sends Bond into a minor tizzy; Braham stands up for Madame Leon, placing her face against the silk of the kimono and cooing over it. Like Grossmith, her addiction follows her into her work; Gilbert calls her “tortoise” when she is the last one to come set for a revision he has in mind. And while there’s no good place to give Grossmith a really sad song or performance, there certainly is for Braham. “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze,”which is never manic like many of the other G&S favorites, is given this powerfully introspective cast as a close-up moves backwards up an invisible spiral staircase into the balcony seats. Henderson doesn’t have the voice for Yum-Yum, nor do her castmates really have the voices for the parts they play. (They’re good actors that I don’t really mind that their singing is good-not-great, and honestly the singing isn’t what matters in this movie.) The effect, accidental or otherwise, is that Braham sounds tired as she sings, taking too many breaths and never ringing the high notes. It’s a melancholy ending that is accented with a knowing smile, a follow spot, indigo, and wistful lyrics about the sun and moon and sky. It’s a perfect (there’s that word again) two and a half minutes of film, evocative and true, and as much of the credit belongs to Henderson as anyone else.

Broadbent is the star of the movie, though, and it’s a surprisingly gruff (though hardly impenetrable) performance from the guy who I’ll always associate first, better or worse, with Moulin Rouge! and Zidler. Gilbert’s libretti are funny, and the whole world knows it; he is one of the essential wits of Victorian England. He doesn’t hesitate to joke around with his fellow Savoyards, either, which is something of a shock. But all the same he has a longing in him which manifests itself as a tendency to be affronted easily. He is prickly with his father (Charles Simon) and pretends his mother doesn’t exist (Eve Pearce). His wife, Lucy (Lesley Manville) is attentive and completely invested in him, but he still tucks her into bed every night like he’s her dad.

One of the movie’s most potent scenes is towards the end, after it’s become clear that The Mikado will become an enormous financial and critical success. Gilbert is saturnine. “There’s something inherently disappointing about success,” he grumbles to Lucy, not looking at her as he prepares to carry on; he is still in his fine clothes while she is in her nightgown. The satirist, addicted to twists of fate and obvious allegory, asks his wife what she would write about next. What she gives him is a story obviously about the two of them, couched in a fantasy that would otherwise be worthy of his typical far. There is no love, there are no children. It is a story filled with emptiness. Manville sells Lucy, and Broadbent’s wide, sad eyes tell the rest of the tale. He is painfully guilty. It’s become clear, in a very British way, that he is captivated by Jessie Bond. There’s no sign that he’s capable of an affair as yet, which is another way in which he’s second-best to Sullivan. It is a less amicable partnership than one would expect; there are no scenes where the two men look over each other’s shoulders and say, “Ah, yes, do that,” or “Have you thought of this?” Gilbert goes home, writes a libretto, delivers it to Sullivan in person, and then sits back as Sullivan does the music. For as much acclaim comes his way, one can tell that Gilbert feels like the lesser partner. He knows Sullivan is the great hope of English music in a way that he is not the great hope of English theater. Sullivan has been knighted, which Gilbert never brings up but which has to burn at the man. And while Gilbert can do little more than nervously kiss Jessie on the cheek to wish her luck, Sullivan has the wherewithal to spend his time off in a Parisian brothel where some guy plays “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” and a pair of boobed prostitutes dance to the tune. Gilbert is the heart of the film and is just as pleasingly two-minded. The greatest theatrical success of the London stage has been his; he is well-off and well-heeled; he is publicly tyrannical and single-minded, which makes him respected as well. And he realizes how small he is, and it’s killing him.

5 thoughts on “Topsy-Turvy (1999)

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