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Prelude and Fugue

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Written and directed by Mike Leigh

With Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Eleanor David, Ron Cook, Martin Savage, Shirley Henderson, Dorothy Atkinson

The film Topsy-Turvy is a curious case, feeling like a five-minute movie preceded by a three hour introduction. As a result, the bulk of it, even despite its numerous achievements, is bound to try the viewers’ patience.

Written and directed by Mike Leigh in his usual manner (the casting is followed by a period of intense improvisations, only after which the screenplay is written), Topsy-Turvy spans the year between the premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida and the premiere of its follow up, their magnum opus The Mikado. It delves into the minute aspects of the two collaborators’ characters -- their private lives and public surroundings -- and the details of the creative process. While doing so, the film is alternately fascinating and slightly tedious; however, it ends on a particularly graceful note.

Of the film’s bulk, the first half is the one that works better. It is a full immersion into the fabric of Victorian life: staid and decorous on the surface, turbulent underneath. After the newspaper reviews damned Princess Ida with weak praise (justly, by the way; while not devoid of some charm and grace, Ida is mostly staid and forced), Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) decides to stop wasting his time on trifles like light opera and concentrate instead on serious music. This leaves his long-time librettist William Schwenck Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) in a creative limbo.

Leigh surrounds his two protagonists, deadpan Gilbert and mercurial Sullivan, with a plethora of fascinating characters, among which are the efficient producer of the Savoy theatre D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) and popular actors of the time, such as Richard Temple (Timothy Spall, the male lead in Leigh’s Secrets and Lies) and George Grossmith (Martin Savage). Not everything works here -- the encounter between Gilbert and his father goes on for much longer than it needs to -- but when a scene works, it is marvelous. The scene were Sullivan plays one of his serious compositions (the song The Lost Chord) is beautiful, touching, and, above all, shows precisely what kind of music Sullivan longs to write instead of his usual light stuff.

The turning point of Topsy-Turvy occurs when Gilbert gets an idea for his next libretto (in an utterly hilarious silent scene). After this, Leigh unaccountably skips some fascinating material -- namely the process of actually writing The Mikado -- cutting directly to Gilbert presenting his finished libretto, and immediately after that, to Sullivan having already completed the score.

The second half of the movie, devoted to rehearsing The Mikado, is lighter and more humorous than the first; it is also more schematic. Instead of tracing the process of the rehearsals followed by the opening night performance, Leigh opts to intercut his narrative with scenes from the finished production. It works marvels on one level, when we are allowed to see the magnificent artistic payoff immediately after the elaborate efforts that went into it. On the other hand, this creates a peculiar stop-and-go rhythm: a scene of creative conflict during the rehearsal is followed up by the resolution of this conflict and then by the performance of the result. When this is repeated four or five times, it starts to feel somewhat predictable and mechanical.

This is exacerbated by the fact that Topsy-Turvy seems to be targeted at a particular audience, namely one that knows a little bit about Gilbert and Sullivan and their works. People, who are totally ignorant of Savoy operas are most likely to be utterly befuddled by the frequent references to and many musical numbers from Princess Ida and The Sorcerer; even the scenes from The Mikado are presented out of sequence. G and S experts and connoisseurs, on the other hand, are in a danger of being bored: they know how The Mikado came to be, and that Gilbert himself not only wrote but also directed all his works, as well as other Gilbert and Sullivan trivia.

The film holds the audience’s attention for all of its three hours, to be sure; there’s accomplished acting from the supporting actors and especially from the women, who are all uniformly excellent. There is also a nice visual sense, and the costume design is the best of 1999, bar none. The musical numbers from G and S operas are also neat, aptly directed and very well sung.

So much for the first three hours or so of Topsy-Turvy, which end with the rousing performance of The Mikado’s finale. What follows after that is nothing short of breathtaking. Instead of devoting the last five minutes to the closure, Leigh makes them the emotional center of the story. In the end, the more apt comparison would be with the music of a vastly different composer: J.S. Bach. The bulk of Topsy-Turvy, with its rather simplistic narrative rhythms, is merely a prelude. The ending is the fugue, performed in three scenes, functioning like variations on the same central theme, which was only hinted at during the prelude. In addition, Leigh scores one of these three scenes to the music from Iolanthe, which is, for my money, Gilbert and Sullivan’s best work, and the most thematically relevant to Topsy-Turvy’s ending.

Suddenly, everything instantly comes into focus and creates a stirring thematic resonance: the scene of Gilbert pacing through the slums of London during the premiere of The Mikado, very much like a father during his child’s birth; Sullivan’s relationship with his mistress and Gilbert’s relationship with his wife; and the plight of one of the actresses, who had to give away her illegitimate child. All the film’s themes are interwoven in a splendid counterpoint.

Ultimately, these last five minutes save the film; I only wish that most of Topsy-Turvy’s three hours were tighter and less rambling. If it were so, then all of it would possess the same emotional power as its conclusion.