A World of Human Emotion and Probability?
British director Mike Leigh has turned out a string of critically lauded short and feature length films, as well as a number of television films for the BBC. He is perhaps best known on this side of the Atlantic for 1996’s Secrets and Lies, his biggest commercial success, which also received five Academy Award nominations.
Where his previous films focused on contemporary social conflicts usually concerning the British class system, sexuality, and racism Leigh’s latest work, Topsy Turvy, appears to be an amusing period piece about 19th-century comic opera duo W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. But Leigh still has his keen eye on class and race differences in this historical setting. With lavishly detailed sets, costumes, and restagings of several scenes from several of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, the film is an elaborate production that immerses us in the opera houses and drawing rooms of Dickensian London.
Topsy Turvy traces the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s faux-Japanese operetta, The Mikado. The film begins with Sullivan hauling himself out of bed, where he has been convalescing from a bad case of kidney stones. He rushes to the theater to conduct Princess Ida, a scene suggesting both his devotion to his job and his weariness with it. The production is mildly successful with theatergoers, but the critics call it “repetitive.” A summer heat wave then keeps the middle class audience away shots of sweaty faces and flapping fans suggest the pain of an evening’s “entertainment” before air conditioning and so receipts fall short of G & S’s previous smash hits. The duo’s producer, Richard D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook), worries that “The reign of the eloquent Gilbert may be at an end.”
Pressured to continue churning out comic masterpieces, Gilbert writes a piece that resembles an earlier work, The Sorcerer, which is being restaged at the Savoy to make up for Princess Ida‘s mediocre proceeds. Sullivan rejects Gilbert’s draft, declaring that he would like a story “filled with human emotion and probability,” rather than “your familiar world of topsy-turvydom.” Believing himself to be a musical genius, Sullivan informs his partner, “There’s so much that I have yet to do for music, for my country, for my queen.” Feeling testy with one another and hard-pressed to come up with another hit operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan decide to go their separate ways. That is, until Gilbert’s wife Lucy (Lesley Manville) forces Gilbert to accompany her to a Japanese exhibition at Humphrey Hall. The exhibition is a veritable “Japanese village” with kabuki theater, dueling swordsmen, and a young Japanese woman selling green tea but more resembles some kind of curiosity show or traveling zoo, with onlookers both repelled (one proper English lady exclaims, “Frightful!”, horrified as she watches a sword fight) and fetishizing the displays of “foreign-ness.” After returning home with a sword he purchased, Gilbert is struck (literally, as the sword falls from its wall hook and hits him on the head) by the idea of a Japanese operetta and writes the libretto. Sullivan agrees to compose the music and The Mikado is underway.
In a series of humorous and incisive scenes showing dress rehearsals in which the actors practice “acting” Japanese, and costumers base their designs on Japanese prints, the stuffy British characters become less than charming as they simultaneously deride and imitate the Japanese culture they intend to portray on stage. We see Scottish actor Durward Lely (Trainspotting‘s Kevin McKidd) fussing about the impropriety of his hem length and lack of a corset. Actress Jessie Bond (Dorothy Atkinson) moans about her costume, refusing to appear on stage without a corset, while the costumer wheedles, “But Japanese women are so small and thin.” And Gilbert brings in some Japanese women from the exhibition during the rehearsal of the “Three Little Maids from School” number and has them walk back and forth while his actresses imitate their small steps.
This would perhaps not be so objectionable except for the fact that none of the Japanese women have any idea what’s going on and the man who accompanies them and appears to be a translator, is actually a chaperone, unable to comprehend Gilbert’s shouting. Unaware of his narrow perspective, Gilbert cannot be bothered even to learn the Japanese women’s names, referring to one as “Miss Sixpence Please” (she sold him green tea at the bazaar and this is the only English phrase she knows). All of these scenes foreground the arrogance of imperial British society, and Gilbert, its representative, as he has white actresses mock the Japanese women in order to elicit laughs from an upper-class British audience.
The whole production of The Mikado ends up looking like some kind of expensive minstrel show the kind being staged in America around the same time, with white actors in blackface mocking poor blacks. Instead of the “human emotion and probability” (a ridiculously vague ambition) that Sullivan desires, it is in fact more “topsy-turvydom,” with English actors in jet-black wigs and kimonos acting out what Gilbert, sitting in his study, imagined to be a “Japanese” situation: a tyrannical ruler imposing irrational and unjust laws on his subjects. The entire plot of the operetta presupposes some kind barbarism inherent in Japanese culture (as opposed to enlightened English civility) that Gilbert obviously sees as comic fodder.
It becomes clear why Leigh chose to show the production of The Mikado instead of the better know H.M.S Pinafore or Pirates of Penzance. The film is very much about the “orientalism” of the nineteenth century, when bored Western artists looked toward the East for some kind of exotic inspiration, all the while maintaining a feeling of secure supremacy. Impressionist painters found beauty in what they considered “primitive” Eastern art. W.S. Gilbert found comedy. He plays with quaint (yet racist) notions of Japanese culture as, in one scene, he plays with a set of wooden blocks while staging the operetta.
Leigh subtly interweaves this critique with charming comedy and a true appreciation for the culture he’s observing. In one scene, for example, lead actors George Grossmith (Martin Savage), Richard Temple (Timothy Spall), and Durward Lely enjoy an oyster lunch. Discussing a contentious situation in Africa between the native people and the English colonialists, Grossmith declares, “We bring them civilization and this is how they repay us!” Convinced of their own supremacy and “civility,” the snobbish, upper-class Brits represented here are happy to exploit one non-Western culture for the amusement of a theater-going audience, and oppress another to extract resources and labor. While this film appears, on the surface, to be simply an entertaining account of comic opera’s best known composers, Leigh steers clear of the glowing representations of colonial British society found in films like Sense and Sensibility and exposes his protagonists (though both likeable characters) as members of an oppressive, racist class.