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Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy turns bio-pics upside down.

By Coury Turczyn

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  By now, British director Mike Leigh's reputation is so sacrosanct among critics that he could probably release a Tidy Bowl commercial and be hailed as a genius. With Naked, Life is Sweet, and especially Secrets and Lies, Leigh has carved a unique niche for himself as a deviser of grittily realistic dramas (so life-like, in fact, that they don't have actual plots). Spending six months or so with his carefully chosen actors, he writes his scripts based on their improvised rehearsals to create "organic" stories; this is so antithetical to the Hollywood factory that you can't help but be impressed. It salves critics' raw nerves to know that someone out there is taking such care to tell tales of Real Life.

But whether Real Audiences can actually enjoy these films is another matter—filled as they are with not particularly sympathetic characters screeching, whining, and yelling at each other. Let's just say it usually requires patience (and perhaps a few classes in film studies) to fully appreciate Leigh's creations. Not so with Topsy-Turvy, his biographical celebration of Victorian stage duo Gilbert and Sullivan. While still employing his renowned filmmaking techniques, Leigh infuses his latest work with a new sense of humor, affection, and an attention to period detail that's remarkable. By inserting his character-driven narratives within the framework of a true story, he has made his most accomplished (and accessible) film yet.

Topsy-Turvy is no ordinary film biography, like those dry epics from Sir Richard Attenborough that beat the life out of their subjects by simply re-enacting events (this happened, and then that happened, and finally...yawn... the end). Instead, Topsy-Turvy captures the spirit of creative expression itself, showing how ideas are transformed into reality, with all the little conflicts and struggles in between. But it also recreates a place and a time so thoroughly that you feel transported—enough to label this as Mike Leigh's first "escapist" film, even though its characters and their stories are grounded in reality.

William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) were the hottest writing and composing team of comic operas in the late 19th century. With Gilbert's witty lyrics and Sullivan's catchy melodies, the London duo co-authored such hits as The Sorcerer (1877), HMS Pinafore (1878), and The Pirates of Penzance (1879)—making "Gilbert and Sullivan" a global trademark. But by 1884, Gilbert's operas were becoming formulaic, and Sullivan yearned to write more serious music than these whimsical themes. This is where Topsy-Turvy picks up their story, just as this famous creative partnership is grinding to a halt. However, when Gilbert attends an exposition of Japanese culture, he finds himself inspired to write The Mikado, a comedic opera set in Japan that doesn't rely on "topsy-turvy" plot devices, thus reuniting the former partners. But then the real work begins—mounting the production—and the real meat of Topsy-Turvy.

Leigh offers a mosaic of characters and moments to compose the bigger picture of a large-scale stage production. He offers so much information that it may take days to unravel all the input, from the Victorian London setting (the early use of telephones, the primitive medical technology, the sense of righteous British imperialism) to the social mores (the way people conversed, their steadfastly formal attire even in sweltering heat, the moral codes against any improper exposure onstage) to the characters' individual conflicts (the top-billed actor's drug addiction, the loneliness of Gilbert's wife, the insecurity of the production's comic lead). But it all flows so naturally, the feel is utterly realistic—as if the actors aren't acting at all, and we are simply eavesdropping on their conversations. Instead of the history lessons of most bio-pics, Leigh has created a trip back in time that's captivating whether you care for Gilbert and Sullivan or not. Topsy-Turvy is a wonderful achievement, the kind of epic-yet-intimate movie that comes around only once in a great while.

But offering up Leigh as a shining example of what Hollywood ought to be doing with itself is problematic at best, even though a number of critics have taken up the cause. Take a look at Cintra Wilson's recent Salon.com essay entitled "Hollywood Maggots Eat Dead Ideas"—the not-so-underlying theme being that while Hollywood studios continue to regurgitate lukewarm pap like The Runaway Bride, Leigh brings honesty and truth to the screen. No argument there—but can you imagine a world where Hollywood did make all its movies just like Mike Leigh? Audiences would be scratching out their eyeballs, overdosing on hyper-reality and tearfully begging for "fake" movies like Singin' in the Rain, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or The Truman Show. Surely there's room for both Hollywood's fantasies and Leigh's realities, no matter their individual faults...


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