A bluff, domineering Victorian fellow pronounces the words in a humorless, matter-of-fact tone, as though dictating a legal filing: “If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan.” The moment marks a painfully achieved breakthrough halfway through Mike Leigh’s delightful 1999 film Topsy-Turvy, the story of a project — The Mikado — that was not merely a hit but earned a place among the minuscule proportion of hits that endured across the centuries. One hundred and thirty-five years after its debut, Gilbert and Sullivan’s most beloved collaboration, the one that begins with those gentlemen of Japan introducing themselves, remains a very model of the modern musical theater and is still widely performed today.
Or it would be, if there were much performing going on in the Anglosphere, which is why Topsy-Turvy makes for especially poignant viewing today. (You can watch it free, with minimal commercial interruption, on NBC’s new streaming service Peacock.)
The author of The Mikado’s libretto, William Schwenck Gilbert — incomparably portrayed by the brilliant character actor Jim Broadbent in his greatest performance — is, at the outset of the movie, huffing about a lightly damning review of his latest “opera” (today usually called an “operetta”), Princess Ida, which was later more or less forgotten. The reviewer notes that Princess Ida is pleasant enough but “words and music alike reveal symptoms of fatigue in their respective composer and author.” The critic correctly identifies a rut of predictability into which Gilbert has fallen — his topsy-turvy reliance on absurdly contrived, high-concept twists. Later in the film, when Gilbert explains to his partner, composer Arthur Sullivan (a recessive Allan Corduner) that the premise for his next work is a magic potion that transforms the person who takes it into whoever he or she is pretending to be, Sullivan scoffs, “You and your world of Topsy-Turvydom! In 1881 it was a magic coin. And before that, it was a magic lozenge. And in 1877 it was an elixir.” Pause. Gilbert: “In this instance, it is a magic potion.”
Gilbert is a genius who is nevertheless turning into a bit of a hack, and needs a genuinely fresh idea, which he discovers at an exhibition of Japanese culture in London where he purchases a ceremonial sword that, when he displays it in his home, later falls off a wall and unleashes his creativity. The Mikado would prove to be not only a career tonic, but the epitome of the Gilbert and Sullivan style, which anticipated today’s Broadway musical.
Topsy-Turvy, which cost an enormous sum by Leigh’s standards — all of $20 million, or approximately the latte budget for a superhero movie — was a financial flop and got no major Oscar nominations except for Best Original Screenplay. What might have kept the film from achieving the stature it deserved is Leigh’s rigorous refusal to flatter the audience by shaping his material into any kind of argument. Though Leigh is an ardent left-winger, the film rejects all opportunities to indulge in propaganda or grandstanding. It doesn’t castigate the Victorians for their racism, sexism, classism, or any other ism that causes disgust in our age. Nor did Leigh locate among the Victorians some previously hidden source of values we today hold dear. Even a reference to abortion comes free of any suggestion of what we should think about it. Today’s concerns hardly enter the picture at all; Leigh opts instead to re-create the period as best he can (though he embellishes the record: The oft-told story of the operetta’s genesis in the Japanese exhibition is false). Only one, unfortunate line of dialogue is clearly thrown in from the vantage point of the late 20th century — an unlikely reference to Jennie Churchill’s headstrong son Winston, then an underachieving ten-year-old.
Leigh’s aim is not to sell us on any idea but merely to document the creation process of The Mikado — the inspiration, the rehearsals, the direction, the decision to cut and then restore the number “A More Humane Mikado” after cast members plead its case with the daunting Gilbert. The dickering about the business deals, the love lives of the librettist and composer, the backstage tribulations of the actors — Leigh is equally fascinated with all of it and assembles a complete picture about how one masterpiece of show business came together.
The script’s sharpest detail is how it reveals character via the contrasting reactions by the phlegmatic Gilbert and the buoyant Sullivan to success: After an enthusiastic reception on opening night, Sullivan basks in the love and says, “I’m proud of myself. Triumphant, exhilarated, exhausted, revived.” As for the gloomy Gilbert, he grouses, “There’s something inherently disappointing about success.” Well, failure is even more disappointing, though.
Perhaps a Best Picture nomination would have come to the film had it been as soppy as the previous year’s meretricious hit Shakespeare in Love. As it is, Topsy-Turvy marks an unusually joyous high point in Leigh’s unparalleled career of forensically examining the lives of Britons of all classes, leaving it to the audience to suss out insights that are implied rather than proclaimed. With Broadway theaters closed now for seven months, and perhaps another entire year of empty theaters looming before us, Topsy-Turvy’s unsentimental appreciation for the acting profession stands out especially. Leigh presents actors as both grandiose and fragile, engorged by public adoration but susceptible to being undone by a small salary dispute. Creative people can be pompous, silly, even ridiculous, but they’re also beautiful creatures with mysterious gifts who, at their best, conjure up the sublime. As Sullivan’s girlfriend tells him, “you light up the world.” A world without performing arts would be shabbier, poorer, darker. Alas, it’s the world far too many of us are living in today.