|Jim Broadbent as W. S. Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy. © 1999 USA Films|
Mike Leigh's affectionate, (mostly) factual and painstakingly detailed account of the partnership of William Schwenck Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan--and the near dissolution of their partnership before writing The Mikado--might be the greatest backstage opera movie in recent memory. And it's being released on March 29 as part of the Criterion Collecton.
The film is set in 1884. Gilbert & Sullivan were coming off Princess Ida, a box-office bomb. Sullivan, newly knighted, was itching to write "serious" music. Gilbert was working on a new story idea, involving a magic lozenge--which Sullivan wanted nothing to do with. At a creative impasse, Gilbert hit upon the idea of setting an English farce in far-away Japan. The result: The Mikado.
Mr. Leigh's film takes you inside the world of these two creative geniuses, thanks to tour de force performances by Jim Broadbent and Alan Corduner as the librettist and composer, respectively. Mr. Broadbent plays Gilbert as a curmudgeon--the funniest man in England who can amuse the masses but barely cracks a smile. He is an irascible jerk, cold and distant to his wife, and absolute hell on his actors.
|Allan Corduner as Sir Arthur Sullivan in Topsy-Turvy. © 1999 USA Films|
And what alchemy it is. The core of Topsy-Turvy is a cracking series of lovingly staged excerpts from The Mikado, The Sorceror and Princess Ida, showcasing the multi-talented cast of singig actors--who all did their own work. Timothy Spall is memorable as Richard Temple, the bass whose booming "Mikado" aria nearly meets Gilbert's snicker-snee. Martin Savage is sufficiently decayed as the opium-addicted George Grossmith who originated the role of Ko-Ko. The supporting cast includes brief (but brilliant turns from Andy Serkis, Dexter Fletcher and
The female leads are strong as well. Shirley Henderson, (Leonora Braham/Yum-Yum) Dorothy Atkinson (Jessie Bond/Pitti-Sing) and Lesley Manville (Mrs. Gilbert) are all appealing. The elegant Eleanor David plays singer Fanny Ronalds: Sullivan's mistress. A scene where she and the composer duet on his song "The Lost Chord" at a recital provides the most sublime moment of the early going, while Ms. Henderson's verion of "The Sun Whose Rays" ends the film on a perfect, wistful note.