Mike Leigh's Backstage Drama
"I'D JUST LIKE to say that this film is not a musical," declared director Mike Leigh after the New York Film Festival press screening of his toe-tapping Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy, which lavishly recreates a handful of musical numbers from the pair's comic operas, including The Mikado (1885). " I wanted to make a period film, and in a way subvert the genre by making a period film in which people appear in the past as they really are in the present. And it seemed to me more healthily naughty to take a chocolate-box subject and subvert that than to do the more obvious thing, like making a film about poverty in the East End of London in 1885--which you might otherwise expect me to do."
Addressing members of the press in the company of his magnificent Gilbert and Sullivan, Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner, the emphatically precise Leigh left no room whatsoever to interpret Topsy-Turvy as a departure from the sharp realist dramas that have been his forte for 25 years. No doubt the maker of Secrets & Lies and Naked prefers to see his heavily improvised oeuvre as one long documentary of human behavior, and, true to this form, the new film deconstructs the legendary G&S "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). Accordingly, the acclaimed auteur's latest masterpiece is itself the product of intense collaboration, filmed without a script and written by its cast in the course of copious research and Leigh's characteristically rigorous method of workshopping.
"I don't know how one could have made this film by [traditional] means, actually," remarked Leigh. "I don't think we could have arrived at [pauses]...well, what we hope is as interesting and truthful a film as this is trying to be, without working in an organic way, bringing into existence this whole world." Corduner concurred. "The invention comes from an informed knowledge that was built up over painstaking research. And because of the amount of time afforded to the improvisation--and the study of the social period and the theatrical period--by the time we got to the filming, we felt very free, because we had everything at our fingertips."
The benefits of such freedom from traditional authorship are, fittingly, never more clear than in Topsy-Turvy's scene of the Mikado chorus standing up to the dictatorial Gilbert, petitioning him to reinstate a Richard Temple (Timothy Spall) solo that the librettist had excised the day before. Just as fitting, this scene was invented from scratch. "The only facts we know are that [Gilbert] cut the song, and it was reinstated the next day," said Leigh. "And so the question of how that decision was received and so on was a case of dramatic invention. As far as I'm concerned, the reason this [thespian rebellion] seemed so engaging and, indeed, important was that here is a piece of pure, grassroots politics--and very exciting for that. For all we know, Temple couldn't have cared less about his song being cut. But it meant more thematically to have a man who was devastated by it."
With that, Broadbent staged his own actorly uprising. "On the other hand," he demurred, "we know definitively that, as actors, we don't like having our big scenes cut at the last minute."
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