Criterion Sunday 558: Topsy-Turvy (1999)

I’m not sure if this is his first period drama, but it’s certainly now a strand of filmmaking that Mike Leigh fairly regularly pursues, and he has a meticulous approach. I daresay some may construe it as boring — and I certainly did with Peterloo (2018) — though here his approach draws out a drama of artistic creation, which has a self-reflective aspect, especially as W.S. Gilbert (Willie, or “Schwenk” to his family) ruminates on how he will conceive his next project, while steadfastly refusing to engage with his audience. Jim Broadbent’s Gilbert is the highlight, bringing a finely tuned comic quality to a man who didn’t seem to find anything funny and certainly seems like an unpleasant person to have been around. Allan Corduner as the rather more boisterous and pleasant Arthur Sullivan, along with the rest of the cast, does sterling work, and there’s a lot of joy to be had in each of these performances. It’s the backstage work, the rehearsals and performances, the bickering and pettiness of the actors as they apply makeup and run their lines, which provides the heart of this endeavour, and I found the time flew by for much of these scenes.

I found too that Leigh was fairly successful in avoiding the rather large elephant in the room, which is to say the latent racism of the entire premise and execution of The Mikado, by focusing on the extremely shortsighted nature of the Englishmen and women who put it all together, along with a subtle critique of colonialist exoticism on the part of a cohort of people who never had any personal engagement with any of the places brought back to them in the imperial capitals (lauding questionable military heroes like Gordon of Khartoum in one scene, as well as the patriotic puffery of a young Winston Churchill in another passing reference). It also feels important that Leigh included a scene where a group of Japanese women could barely contain their confusion when presented with the ‘three little girls’ of The Mikado in person, as Gilbert tried to mine them for some expressive tips. For all that I don’t personally find a great deal to enjoy in the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, I can still appreciate some of its appeal, but this is a story of putting on a show and it really lives in the details of that shared endeavour, a shared madness and folly at too many points.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Lesley Manville, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall, Martin Savage; Length 160 minutes.

Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 20 August 2000 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022).

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