[article written for Death Valley Driver Message Board Movie Club]
1999 was a wonderful year for film, from Being John Malkovich and The Limey to The Iron Giant and Toy Story 2. But perhaps my favorite picture of the year was Mike Leigh’s story of the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, Topsy-Turvy.
Topsy-Turvy, generally defined as backwards, disorderly or chaotic, was the term used to describe many of the operas created by Gilbert and Sullivan, which involve characters whose lives have been flip-flopped or inverted, be it mistaken for a different social standing or a baby switch between children of different social classes.
In a way, this picture is a Topsy-Turvy work for Leigh, who is best known for slice of life British pictures like Naked and Secrets & Lies. But really, Leigh is doing the same work here, just in a period setting and focusing on two well-known historical figures, WS Gilbert (played wonderfully full of bravado by Jim Broadbent) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner).
In 2011, one would think the best known Gilbert and Sullivan opera would probably be either HMS Pinafore or The Pirates of Penzance, thanks to their songs and plots being used across the popular culture spectrum, perhaps most notably in metatexual works like Animaniacs. But the Mikado was their most successful collaborations, and as the film shows, it almost did not happen.
There was a growing schism between Gilbert and Sullivan, due to the perceived sameness of their work of the time. As Sullivan points out in the film, Gilbert had begun to repeat himself on plot devices, using a magic potion or magic ring or such. We see a break down between the two and it’s only the creation of The Mikado’s plot that gets the two back together.
Of course, there is some historical tweaking of these events, as Leigh details in his commentary on the recently-released Criterion edition of the film. Gilbert had been noodling with the idea of the play before going to see the Japanese exhibit in London and having a revelatory inspiration from a samurai sword falling off his wall.
While both Broadbent and Corduner are front and center for most of the picture, there are plenty of great actors at work in the movie, especially Martin Savage as Grossmith (Ko-Ko) and Shirley Henderson as Leonora Braham (Yum-Yum). Even sharp-eyed viewers may not have recognized Andy Serkis, known now for his motion capture acting in things like The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, as the eccentric choreographer John D’Auban.
It should also be noted that everyone in the picture did their own singing and Corduner did his own piano playing and conducting. There’s a great anecdote told by Leigh of how Corduner was given one of Sullivan’s batons to use in filming, but he was so overwhelmed by the idea that he had to use a prop instead.
The picture looks exquisite for a film with only a budget of around $15 million. There are only a handful of exteriors, so everything is tightly shot indoors. The lush costumes and make-up are hard to miss, as they each won Oscars that year. The picture was also nominated for Best Art Direction and Best Original Screenplay (losing to Sleepy Hollow and American Beauty, respectively). It also won numerous critics awards, for Best Picture, Best Actor (Broadbent), Best Supporting Actor (Timothy Spall as George Temple) and Screenplay.
As a long-time Gilbert and Sullivan fan, I really loved the movie when it came out and still enjoy watching it years later. I’ve come to appreciate Corduner’s performance over time, as I preferred the showier bombast given by Broadbent, who was also more well-known when the picture debuted. Topsy-Turvy was Corduner’s first leading role in a film, having done lots of theater before that.
One of my few disappointments in the picture is Leigh’s decision to not include “As some day it may happen” as one of the musical numbers. This is “the list” song performed by Ko-Ko and the song that has been adapted over the years (including by Gilbert himself) to include contemporary references in his list of grievances. I have one recording of the Mikado from the 80s where he complains about digital watches and CD Walkmans, for example.
As mentioned in the countdown thread, there is a 1939 version of the Mikado available on Netflix Instant for people to watch if interested and loads of YouTube clips of various performances and popular culture references.