There was a 1953 movie variously called The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan and The Great Gilbert and Sullivan. It had a star-studded cast, but, unfortunately it isn’t available on video – unfortunately because it is hard to imagine anyone but Mike Leigh’s mom wanting to watch his new Gilbert and Sullivan biopic, Topsy-Turvy. It may be the most disappointing film of the year.
W.S.Gilbert, of course, was the guy who wrote the lyrics – witty, satirical stuff with the kind of rhyming and rhythmic genius that transcends time and place. His partner, Arthur Sullivan, came up with memorably inventive melodies to match and their joint output between 1877 and 1896 of fourteen operettas etched their names permanently in the history of musical theater.
The key to the best Gilbert and Sullivan works is the use of deceptively frothy, charming lightness combined with imaginative, sometimes silly, fantasy, while, at the same time, retaining intelligence, perceptive observation, and a keen satirical edge. Children can surely enjoy these operettas, but never mistake them for other than adult entertainment.
Certainly one of the best of the lot is The Mikado which is used as a key element in Leigh’s film. The Mikado pokes fun at hypocrisy in high places, pomposity amongst the powerful. When done well, it is a skittering piece of virtuoso wordsmanship set to ever-fresh and hummable tunes. Lightness is the key.
Leigh uses an earlier, less successful piece, Princess Ida, to provide a plot device – a career low point from which Gilbert and Sullivan will make a comeback. The scenes in the film from Princess Ida tend to confirm that it was, indeed, a less than wonderful work; there’s no way of knowing whether Leigh deliberately made it sound even worse than it might be for the sake of his plot, but it isn’t much fun to watch.
En route to the rehearsals and performance of The Mikado, Topsy-Turvy explores both Gilbert and Sullivan’s lives and relationships. There are a lot of nice bits and pieces in this two-hour forty-minute marathon, individual scenes that are fun or have some wit or insight – Sullivan’s visit to a brothel, a conversation on a new device called a telephone, a moment of inspiration from a Japanese sword, the blase actor who really wants to be told he’s good, a couple of bedtime talks between Gilbert and his wife.
But despite the wealth of detail and the generally fine performances, Leigh doesn’t make these characters real: they are never more than sets of attitudes attached to costumed players. It’s all engaging enough that you want to care, but the film utterly fails to build any real empathy for the characters.
If it had all been kept light and fluffy, it might still have sailed as light entertainment, but Leigh’s weightier ambitions are evident and the whole production sinks leadenly beneath scene after scene endlessly over-extended beyond the interest of their content. The sets and costumes are lavish, but often the sound track sounds badly flawed, with both instrumental and vocal music unpleasantly distorted. Whether the style of The Mikado scenes performed was an attempt at historical recreation or directorial idiosyncrasy, even this great material ends up missing the charm of the libretto and score.
The film concludes with a full performance of "The Sun Whose Rays," from The Mikado. It is given such strong emphasis that Leigh must have wanted to make a point with it. Pitti-Sing has told Yum Yum that modesty will become her as a bride. "The sun, whose rays/Are all ablaze/With ever-living glory,/Does not deny/His majesty…" Yum Yum sings, "I mean to rule the earth/As he the sky –/We really know our worth,/The sun and I!" It’s an ode to immodesty by a bride whose husband-to-be is going to be beheaded. Make of it what you will. Perhaps, in a surely unintended metaphor, it says something about this film itself and its route to disaster.