Director Mike Leigh is known for his modern British kitchen sink dramas that highlight the working class, women and everyday slices of life, in general, in the tradition of that submode. His famed six month process of developing a script through improvisation combined with meticulous research and logistical planning has been discussed ad nauseum, often by me: Another Year and Happy-Go-Lucky.
His mighty method of working has been refined over the course of a 40 year-strong career that has seen Leigh reap a total of seven personal Oscar nominations for writing and directing features such as Secrets and Lies (1996), Vera Drake (2004) and what is arguably his finest hour as an auteur, Topsy-Turvy (1999), a beautiful new edition of which has recently been released by Criterion.
Leigh has tackled a variety of styles, from period (Vera Drake), to the impressionistic romantic comedy with an edge (Happy-Go-Lucky), to the Ozu-esque autumnally meditative mature drama (Another Year). The director has applied his method to many kinds of films as a lens through which he can clearly see new experiences via a trusted , unique way of working. Topsy-Turvy might be Leigh doing particular thing once again, but the result is adventurous, acerbic and a crowning jewel of Leigh’s esteemed career. The film is daring, thoughtful, ambitious and riveting; not the typical buttoned-down British biopic fare.
To reconstruct this Victorian-era tale of composing team Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) and William S. Gilbert (Leigh regular Jim Broadbent, who also appears in the 22-minute short, A Sense of History, included on the extras disc), Leigh employed various music experts (musical director Gary Yershon), art directors (Eve Stewart, Helen Scott, John Bush), costume designers (Lindy Hemming, who took the Oscar for Topsy-Turvy and will work on the upcoming Dark Knight Rises), as well as actors who could also sing opera convincingly like the thrilling Shirley Henderson, who is exceedingly vivacious as Leonora Braham, the actress who tackles the role of Yum-Yum in the film’s staging of The Mikado.
Amidst the actual construction of the films stunning sets and wardrobe, Leigh was hard at work with his troupe, as is his usual custom, making sure each was ready to improvise within the specified set of restraints of the production, ready to perform any of the three key operas shown in the film (The Mikado, Princess Ida and The Sorcerer). The cast was performing within a historical context, and in true Leigh spirit, even the smallest roles seem fully-fleshed out, each character is the center of his or her own universe, equal in importance, all expertly realized.
The acting in any Leigh film is formidable, but in this behind-the-scenes peek at the life of a decaying theater troupe offers the Leigh players new opportunities to showcase their chops. As Gilbert and Sullivan, Corduner and Broadbent (who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2001 for Iris) find stuffy good humor, strength and genuine pathos in their characters, giving them inner lives that might otherwise be glossed over in the greater legend of the prickly pair.
Lesley Manville, as Gilbert’s wife Kitty, proves yet again that she is one of the most versatile British actresses working today, adding a refined, dignified sadness to what could have easily been consigned to “the wife role” bin. Timothy Spall, memorable in Leigh’s Life is Sweet amongst other roles, adds a dark joie de vivre to his Richard Temple, the actor who tackles the key role of “The Mikado” in the production, as does Martin Savage as George Grossman, the addled actor who plays “Ko-Ko”.
The actors are photographed in various stages of tableaux vivant by Leigh’s great collaborator Dick Pope, who has proven over and over to be one of the most underrated cinematographers working today. On Topsy-Turvy, each frame is composed with a painterly elegance, austere without being unapproachable. This painterly technique, which can be seen across Leigh’s filmography, notably on Naked, but also in his evocative work for John Sayles on Honeydripper and his Oscar-nominated photography on Neil Burger’s The Illusionist (his single nomination, which is positively criminal). His loving, warm work on Topsy-Turvy practically illuminates the artistic choices of not only Leigh and the actors, but of every technician working on the film.
Expressive, energetic acting aided by creative mise en scene is truly what The Mikado is about, which makes it a shame that Criterion’s tandem release of the 1939 Technicolor feature film of the Gilbert and Sullivan opereatta, directed by Victor Schertzinger, falls flat in comparison to Leigh’s complex, whip-smart vision. Leigh is interviewed on the extras disc for this version, and seems a bit perplexed himself at the direction of the earlier film, which he more or less likens to a cultural artifact with a few good qualities, namely the stunning art direction.
It might have been more fitting for Criterion to have included The Mikado as an extra for Topsy-Turvy as the earlier film seems a bit out of place within the general collection, notable mainly for the technical elements and amped up Orientalism that is inexplicably not as offensive in Leigh’s version. Acting-wise, the cast is merely serviceable with a few good moments.
If presented with a choice between one film or the other, it is difficult to imagine the savvy cinephile consumer opting for Schertizinger’s theatrical, faithful rendering when Leigh’s finest hour as a director is available in a brilliantly remastered, two-disc digitally remastered edition. Only for the extreme musical theater enthusiasts, The Mikado pales in comparison, on filmic terms, to Topsy-Turvy in every way, though as a supplement to Leigh’s highly-original re-imagining of the biopic it works.