17 March 2000 | Tom-207
Victorian England refracted through Gilbert & Sullivan
I was introduced to Gilbert & Sullivan in my very early teens under the auspices of the parents of one of my friends. They took us to Falmouth on Cape Cod to a place called Highfield, the summer home of the Oberlin College Players. They specialized in G&S and other light operettas.
I learned to appreciate G&S, but I never became a fanatical devotee, even with the historical context patiently explained to me by my friend's mom. (It was similar with Shakespeare. The language could be a barrier rather than a gateway.)
The audience in the theater where I saw Topsy-Turvy was filled with devotees. You could hear their delight as they viewed the actual performances of Gilbert & Sullivan's work in the film. The director, Mike Leigh, through skillful editing and camera work, does an excellent job of photographing a stage presentation, certainly one of the best I've ever seen on film. He uses closeups, and though the actors are using an exaggerated, theatrical style, somehow the G&S material has never been clearer to me; and I've seen at least a dozen G&S performances, including two D'Oyle Carte productions (Pirates and The Mikado), the present-day descendant company of the Savoy Theater depicted in the film. People who have never seen G&S before will appreciate their work here.
Most of all, the film is very much about the highly contrasting personalities of William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, the former emotionally restrained, the latter a hedonist. Leigh allows us to get to know them quite well and a host of other characters too, though G&S are first among equals in this excellent, ensemble cast. Among the supporting players, I found Shirley Henderson to be increasingly interesting as the film progressed, and I felt rewarded when she was the central character in the last two scenes of the film.
The period settings, manners, and speech are very accurate and detailed. As presented here, the Victorian era seems physically stifling, with people leading their lives in the close quarters of dressing rooms, offices, restaurants, living rooms, and bedrooms. Even more stifling is the emotional inhibition masked by correctly blustery forthrightness. Toward the end of the film, there's a revealing and poignant scene between Gilbert and his wife which makes this all very clear, and what also becomes clear is how important theatrical presentations were to people then as a means of expressing themselves in a culture which sanctioned few quarters to do so. It's one of the best examples of Mike Leigh's direction.
The G&S operettas were, of course, a commentary on Victorian times. In the film, you can see why they were so wildly popular. In that period, I think so many people were so restrained and distant from their own feelings that even the, to us, mannered and wordy G&S operettas were a breath of fresh air in Victorian England. The few occasions when Leigh breaks out of consistently claustrophobic medium shots and closeups are when he gives us a wide view of the full, theatrical stage.
Topsy-Turvy is about how Gilbert and Sullivan refracted Victorian England through a proscenium arch. Mike Leigh refracts it again through the camera lens in a way that allows us to see ourselves in our times by looking at G&S and their operettas in theirs. This is a long film (over two and one half hours), and given the subject matter, not to everyone's interest, though it's far more than the specifics of the period and the material. I found it to be my favorite film of the year thus far, and I highly recommend it.