Published December 1, 1999
Like David Lynch in The Straight Story, Mike Leigh apparently thought it was time to surprise us with Topsy-Turvy. Instead of his usual dark and sardonic and implicitly political look at present- day Britain, he offers us an ostensibly sunny period-piece about, of all things, the collaboration of W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) on The Mikado. Presumably Leigh will draw an audience from among the many enthusiasts, both in Britain and America, for the monumental operettas of these two great Victorian bores. And although I do not share his passion, I could have found much to enjoy in this account of puttin’-on-a-show in 19th century London if there had not been quite so much of the 20th century, political Mike Leigh showing through the rich Victorian brocade.
For in the midst of all the gaiety and humor, Leigh cannot resist touching up the portraits of his characters to include the information that they are thoughtless and insensitive about their imperial assumptions and crammed to the gills with unspoken secrets and repressed emotions. And so we are allowed to glimpse, in between the singing of jolly comic songs, cases of abortion, marital disharmony and sexual adventurism, drunkenness or drug addiction among the D’Oyly Carte players, Gilbert’s hatred of his mother and Sullivan’s visit to a Parisian brothel. None of these things is ever talked about, apart from an occasional glossing over with platitudes. Thus the news of General Gordon’s death provokes the remark that “He [the Mahdi] simply hasn’t played with a straight bat. . .It just isn’t cricket.”
Ah yes, the Victorians: famous for their corny sporting metaphors and their multifarious “repressions” — leading, it scarcely need be added, to a variety of personal and social pathologies whose consequences we still suffer from nearly a century after Queen Victoria breathed her last. There is far more to be said about this familiar cartoon version of history than can be included in a brief review, but it has to be pointed out that here it is a continual irritant, trivializing and disfiguring a story in which such details are entirely adventitious. Into the same category fall Leigh’s many little winks of recognition to the audience: “Jenny says Winston is 11, covered with freckles and full of disdain for authority,” says Mrs Gilbert (Lesley Manville) to Gilbert. “It’s a reservoir pen; it contains its own ink,” says Richard D’Oyly Carte to Sullivan.
“Good gracious,” says Sir Arthur, “whatever will they think of next?”
Similarly there is a lot of labored stuff about corsets and telephones and doorbells that could have been omitted so as to bring the film’s two hours and forty minutes down to a more reasonable length. There is also the occasional clanger, such as Gilbert’s rejection of Sir Arthur’s proposal for a new departure by saying: “We are in no danger of repeating ourselves….If you wish to write a grand opera about a prostitute dying in a garret, I suggest you communicate with Mr Ibsen in Oslo, who will doubtless supply you with something suitably dull.” Not only was Ibsen hardly known as a dramatist in England before the 1890s (this film is set in 1885), but at the time the Norwegian capital was called Christiania, not Oslo.
But if you like Gilbert and Sullivan, as I do not (have I mentioned this before?) you will probably find a lot to like in this film — probably even enough to make up for such deficiencies as I found so offputting. I would mention just one more disappointment, however. “The Lost Chord,” perhaps the loveliest and certainly the most Victorian thing Sullivan ever wrote, itself becomes a lost chord here. Sullivan sits down to accompany a performance of the song as the encore to a musical evening he has attended, but he only gets through the introduction before Leigh cuts away to another part of the story. It is perhaps treated as the musical equivalent of the comment that the Mahdi hasn’t kept a straight bat — that is, as an example of Victorian sentimentalism and provincialism. But, to my ears at least, it is a finer thing than the strained jollity of the Savoy operas that Leigh is trying to resurrect.