Film Highlight: Topsy-Turvy

courtesy of Walker Art Center

Mike Leigh's work of brilliant improvisation deconstructs the legendary Gilbert and Sullivan "magic" as the product of two gargantuan egos, much backstage bickering, the toppling weight of the pair's past successes, the talents and frailties of their tireless acting troupe, and no small amount of visionary genius (plus some intuitive and invaluable contributions from their significant others). Utterly doing away with the Epic Sweep method of film biography, Leigh encapsulates the team's work (and their unflattering personalities) by focusing on the decisive period between their calamitous creative drought and The Mikado. There are scenes here that capture the politics of art-making more astutely than any narrative film in memory, as when the inspiration-starved Gilbert (impeccably played by Jim Broadbent) raids a Japanese exhibition for new color, imports some "real" Japanese women to London to instruct the actors during rehearsal, and is only too happy to allow his visitors' incomprehension of English to translate into more demure geisha-girl stereotypes. More amazing still is the fact that, per Leigh's usual method of working, this unqualified masterpiece from 1999 was shot entirely without a script. Don't miss it.

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