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Mike Leigh's delectable Gilbert and Sullivan

By Gary Susman

JANUARY 24, 2000:  If there's one thing Mike Leigh loves, it's the working class. In Life Is Sweet, Naked, and Secrets & Lies, the British playwright/screenwriter/director has developed his own branch of kitchen-sink realism, one that finds heroism in the lives of the sort of ordinary people who seldom get to be on-screen heroes. To be sure, Leigh has a Renoir-like empathy for all his characters, not just the poor and virtuous ones, and he gives them the respect of showing them in all their human frailty and desire. That is, he's not a preacher but an entertainer.

After all, if there's another thing Leigh loves, it's performers. His now-famous process involves intense one-on-one work with each actor to develop a role. Only after months of living in character do the actors improvise a screenplay along Leigh's outline of scenes. The result is a difficult but rich working experience for the actors, one that shows in the literally lived-in, organic performances.

Now, in Topsy-Turvy, Leigh gets to combine both loves. Ostensibly a period comedy drama about a key moment in the collaboration of operetta masters Gilbert and Sullivan, it's also a valentine to show business that happens to be set in an earlier age, like Shakespeare in Love. And it's that rare backstage drama that really illustrates from start to finish the work behind putting on a show, work arduous and painstaking enough to make acting look like an honorable profession and the actors look like working-class heroes.

You don't have to be a fan of Gilbert's tongue-twisting wordplay and Sullivan's sprightly melodies to enjoy Topsy-Turvy. In fact, if you have any cherished notions about the pair, or about the elegant splendor of the Victorian Era, this is not the Merchant Ivory picturebox for you. Leigh's warts-and-all portraiture (backed, he claims, by scrupulous research) reveals William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan to have been a pair of thoroughly neurotic, frustrated, combative men who nonetheless forged a long and successful partnership based on charisma and talent. Sullivan (played with enormous compassion by Allan Corduner) is a jittery, nervous man who, by the time of the film's 1884 setting, finds scoring Gilbert's libretti a waste of his gifts and yearns to compose more serious works. Yet he sees no contradiction between his refined artistic sensibility and his yen for the lower entertainments of French brothels.

The movie belongs more to Gilbert, however, thanks to the towering performance of frequent Leigh player Jim Broadbent. His lyricist is a supreme grouch, grumbling and bellowing with impatience at a world that can't keep up with his own fleet wit. (It's clear why his actors want desperately to please him even as they anticipate his withering criticism.) He's happily married yet barely able to show affection to his supportive wife, Kitty (Lesley Manville). He, too, feels that his recent work (such farces as Princess Ida and Iolanthe, after the heights of H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance) is trivial. He and Sullivan avoid each other for nearly half the film, and their ultimate reunion is so disastrous that it nearly breaks up the partnership. Then Kitty drags her husband to an exhibition of Japanese culture, planting the germ of inspiration that will become The Mikado, perhaps G&S's greatest success.

The rest of Topsy-Turvy is given over to the fascination and delight of watching Gilbert and Sullivan and their company create the operetta from scratch. The actors are also fully rounded characters with their own problems -- some are addicts, some are in ill health, all have fragile egos, especially comic baritone Richard Temple (Leigh regular Timothy Spall). Rather than the conventional narrative thrust of showing these petty squabblers pulling together for the good of the play, Leigh builds the drama by accretion, with the movie growing as organically as the show. Things happen without explanation. The artists strive for perfection and order in their creation but at the end of the evening are left with only the randomness and dissatisfactions of real life. Yet their song lingers, in Topsy-Turvy's haunting final scene, a testament to the performers' Sisyphean, heroic labor.

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