Topsy-Turvy – Critical Essay

Jared Rapfogel

Director/writer: Mike Leigh. Producer: Simon Channing-Williams. Cinematographer: Dick Pope. Production designer: Eve Stewart. Editor: Robin Sales. Music: (from Arthur Sullivan) Carl Davis. USA Films.

In making Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh, a director famous for ignoring the rules of dramatic moviemaking, has made the strange choice of taking those rules upon himself. A Mike Leigh period piece about Gilbert and Sullivan (Sir William and Sir Arthur, respectively, the librettist and composer of the gently satirical and wildly popular late nineteenth-century comic operas) sounds like something out of a Monty Python sketch. What Leigh has come up with is far from laughable–it’s one of his best movies–but the Monty Python comparison isn’t so far off the mark in terms of his decision to do it in the first place. After the 1999 New York Film Festival screening of Topsy-Turvy, Leigh admitted that the improbability, the absurdity, of the idea is at least part of what appealed to him. His “naughty” (Leigh’s word) desire to make a movie that apparently goes against the grain of his career seems to have freed him; the movie is unmistakably his own but with a heft, a breadth, and, perhaps because music is at its center, a lyricism that is new and exciting. It’s a democratic, big-hearted, open film, but with Leigh’s characteristic sharpness and lack of sentimentality.

Topsy-Turvy is the first of the British director’s movies to fit comfortably into an established genre. On the surface anyway, it’s a part of the well-worn and even old-fashioned tradition of the backstage picture. This is a particularly strange genre for Leigh to take on. His movies are marked by their insistent, stubborn ordinariness, sometimes shading into ugliness. There’s never even a suggestion of a Hollywood sheen to his films–the setting is always drab or grim working-class Britain, the characters are, if not unappealing, certainly unexceptional (other than the exceptionally bitter, angry Johnny in Naked). And, with regard to plot, Leigh has always rejected the conventions of narrative filmmaking–the story in his movies is always secondary to the characters. All of which makes Topsy-Turvy the least likely Mike Leigh project imaginable. The backstage drama would seem to conflict with every one of these tendencies. Even if the movie weren’t about two of England’s most famous theatrical figures, the fact that it is a period piece erases any sense of ordinariness. And far from attempting to make this vanished world familiar, Leigh emphasizes its strangeness, from our retrospective vantage point (the obsolete, unwieldy phones) as well as from the characters’ perspective (the novelty of a pen which houses its own ink). Topsy-Turvy is the best kind of period movie: it immerses us in a world which is richly detailed and entirely convincing, but also as alien as that of a science fiction movie.

The characters in a backstage drama are always charismatic and appealing. And the plot is, broadly speaking, almost as fixed as in sports movies, with the successful show in the place of the big game. Leigh doesn’t let the genre shackle or limit him, though. If anything, it gives him something to work from, something to apply his approach to, and as a result, from our point of view, the genre acts as a sort of experimental control. Setting Topsy-Turvy alongside other backstage dramas allows Leigh’s style to stand out in bold relief. The familiar elements make it even more distinctively a Mike Leigh movie because of how he chooses to approach and subvert the genre.

The beauty of the movie is that there’s no tension in the confrontation between the genre’s conventions and Leigh’s approach. He transforms the traditional format by slowing it down, expanding it. Leigh’s movies have always worked against the conventions of dramatic filmmaking; he rejects the plot mechanics and the rush toward the conclusion of most movies, and Topsy-Turvy is different only in that it contains the conventions it contradicts. But there’s nothing jarring about this contradiction. Leigh’s not trying to deconstruct or explode the form, to expose the artificiality of the movie’s Hollywood forebears, so the conventions and the anti-conventions coexist peacefully and even with a kind of harmony. Leigh simply cleanses the conventions of their artificiality–working within them, he makes them natural, full, convincing.

The first step in this process is to shift the emphasis away from what, according to the tradition of the greatman (or men) movie, should be the film’s subject. The only easy way to describe Topsy-Turvy is to say that it’s a movie about the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado. It begins with the duo, having already collaborated on several works, on the verge of ending their professional relationship. The movie shows us their growing estrangement, and then the conception and creation of The Mikado from Gilbert’s visit to a travelling exhibition on Japanese customs–the inspiration for the show–through the writing, casting, rehearsals, and, finally, the production. But it’s misleading to say that Topsy-Turvy is a film about Gilbert and Sullivan. They’re the most famous and, in some ways, the most charismatic of the movie’s characters, and as the creative forces behind the show we see taking shape, they’re necessarily at its center. But part of what makes Topsy-Turvy such an exhilarating movie is that there’s very little distinction between the center and the fringes, between Gilbert and Sullivan and the host of characters–producers, actors, stagehands, and others–surrounding them. Where most movies concentrate on an essential character or story line or concept, with the secondary characters less defined the more tangential they are, Topsy-Turvy is written in deep focus. It’s not the first movie to pull this off: this is Robert Altman’s specialty, and it’s been fairly popular lately (Happiness, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Cradle Will Rock, Black and White, etc.). But the approach is more striking here because Leigh is dealing with historical characters–and all the audience expectations, conscious and unconscious, that such a choice entails. And it’s one thing to expose us to more than the usual number of characters, but Leigh then goes further by declining to introduce them to us. Whole scenes are devoted to characters who seem to be almost totally irrelevant to the story (to what we see as the story) and whose relationships (to Gilbert and Sullivan, to one another) are not at all clear. The movie seems at first sloppy, unfocused, maybe poorly edited. But eventually Leigh’s approach comes into focus. What he has put on the screen is a wealth of detail, and it’s only when it becomes clear that there is no single subject, that the subject is broad and organic, expanding and shifting to include anything and everything that passes across the screen, that we begin to orient ourselves. Everything eventually falls into place, and the portrait (of a community) turns out to be all the richer and more convincing for having been, at first, apparently so sloppy and chaotic. It’s not messy; it’s simply full, abundant.

It’s partly Leigh’s strategy of creating the script in collaboration with his actors, of farming out each character and each scene, that creates Topsy-Turvy’s deep, even focus and wealth of detail. Each character, no matter how ostensibly minor, feels vivid enough to be a full-fledged protagonist because each, in a sense, has its own author. Leigh’s approach to filmmaking (or, more to the point, to screenwriting) is even more singular than it sounds. Plenty of directors let their actors improvise, and to some improvisation is an integral part of their filmmaking. For Leigh, however, it’s not merely a tool for freeing the actors; for him, improvisation doesn’t have anything to do with spontaneity, since by the time the cameras are rolling the actors are sticking to the script. His method is a way of freeing the script from the conventions of dramatic writing and of preventing these conventions from overwhelming the characters, from trapping them in an artificial structure. He uses improvisation to write, not to film; to free the characters, not the actors.

As a result, it’s not just the number of characters and wealth of detail that take some getting used to–the rhythm of the movie is disorienting at first as well. The movies that Topsy-Turvy seems to resemble have a headlong quality to them–they rush us on to the conclusion. But each scene in Topsy-Turvy is self-contained; the plot is submerged beneath the events of the moment. It’s as if Leigh had frozen each frame of a traditional backstage drama, enlarged it, and made a mini-movie out of each one–each scene has its own stars, its own plot trajectory, its own themes. Each character and each scene has an autonomy that’s lacking in most movies, they develop independently from the overall plot, the overriding conception. The movie plays out in two dimensions, so to speak; it moves forward (at its own pace) but also expands outward.

In every backstage drama we watch the rehearsals; we’re witness to the behind-the-scenes intrigue; we see, eventually, part of the final performance. But we’re rarely allowed to settle in, to appreciate the rehearsal or the intrigue or the performance for its own sake. Watching Gilbert and three of his actors rehearse part of The Mikado, we’re aware that it’s a step in a process and that eventually we’ll see their work in its finished form, but we’re so engrossed we’d hardly care if the payoff were denied to us. This scene, like almost every other, works on many more levels than we’re used to. It’s documentarylike in that we can take any number of things away from it. We can choose to observe the creative, theatrical process, with regard to either the writer or the actors; we can watch for insights into the characters, Gilbert or the others; we can appreciate the scene they are practicing and think about how it should be performed; we can simply appreciate the leisurely, open rhythm and shape of the scene. And on some level we appreciate each of these facets.

The same goes for the performances themselves: it’s not necessary, plot-wise, to show us the musical numbers in their entirety, but Leigh isn’t afraid that engrossing us in a scene from The Mikado will distract us from the movie. And this particular risk has a big payoff–it would be a poor movie about an artist if it were unwilling to give us a substantive glimpse of the art. The excerpts we see from the operetta entertain us in their own right, as well as adding to the portrait Leigh is painting–of Gilbert and Sullivan certainly, but also (especially in the beautiful, majestic final shot) of the characters performing the piece.

Leigh’s greatest weakness can be his tendency towards caricature, his habit (paradoxical, given his method) of assigning one grotesque trait to his characters. In fairness, his overall strategy is usually to create seemingly one-note, simplistic characters who, over the course of the movie, develop into complicated, multi-layered people. It’s an effective approach, but a slightly schematic and, by now, predictable one. The characters in Topsy-Turvy, though, become more and more complicated without starting out as caricatures. Leigh reveals their layers with more subtlety and delicacy, and above all more quietly, than in his recent films. The last ten minutes of Topsy-Turvy are revelatory. Jim Broadbent’s Gilbert and Allan Corduner’s Sullivan have been convincing and charismatic from the beginning, but in these last moments, Leigh takes a graceful, utterly unsentimental dip far deeper into their personalities. Having entertained us with their creativity and charisma, he adds a bold, unexpected, clear-eyed final stroke to their portraits, giving us a glimpse of another, less public, more serious side of their personalities, and deepening the movie’s attitude towards them. And in a beautiful, immensely moving final gesture, he gives the last moment to a character who has played a relatively small role in the movie thus far, transforming her, in a matter of seconds, into a vivid, fascinating character, and at the same time demonstrating eloquently that, though she has not created the music she is performing, her profound identification with it makes it as much hers as it is Gilbert and Sullivan’s. Topsy-Turvy is a rarity–a movie about artists that is genuinely about art, and the artistic process, rather than merely personality and fame.

Jared Rapfogel is a recent graduate of New York University. He currently lives in Brooklyn and is attempting to launch a full-time career in the moviegoing business.

COPYRIGHT 2000 University of California Press

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