In the wake of directing what is likely to remain the best imaginable Gilbert and Sullivan movie—Topsy-Turvy, a fantastically detailed and wonderfully leisurely account of the genesis of The Mikado—Mike Leigh has taken to making statements like this: “I’m not interested in proselytizing Gilbert and Sullivan. At the end of the day they were minor artists. They did suffer, but they suffered in a bourgeois way.” Aside from any possible arguments about the implied connection between non-bourgeois suffering and the making of major art, it’s understandable that Leigh needs to put some distance between himself and the body of work he has so cunningly restored to cultural prominence. He knows after all that many will go to see Topsy-Turvy for reasons that have nothing to do with Leigh’s impressive earlier films (Life Is Sweet, Naked, Secrets and Lies) and everything to do with a lingering, if decidedly attenuated, popular enthusiasm for the Savoy operas.
They will go looking for lost comforts associated with the ideas of operetta and of Victorian theater, as well as the familiar pictorial splendors to which this era of filmmaking—with its endless and eye-pleasing adaptations of Austen, James, Forster, and other chroniclers of bourgeois pastimes—has long since accustomed them: in short, for a Christmas treat appropriate to that imaginary nineteenth-century childhood which will endure well past the end of the twentieth. Leigh’s triumph is to have provided something that can pass for exactly such a package, while delivering a movie almost as abrasive in its way as Naked. The abrasiveness admittedly takes different forms: instead of apocalyptic rants, violent sex, and life on the street, we have the unobtrusive permeation of Victorian sitting rooms and dressing rooms by a full range of mental and corporeal miseries, from kidney stones and morphine addiction to raging paranoia and sexual denial. From our first glimpse of Arthur Sullivan waking in pain and panic to drag himself to conduct the orchestra on the opening night of Princess Ida, it’s clear that this is to be a period film in which the costumes and furnishings do not protect the characters from physical vulnerability. Even the gnarled and protuberant facial hair of so many of the men adds to the sense of inescapable materiality.
The premise is simple: What if Gilbert and Sullivan had actually existed as something other than the lovably eccentric caricatures that crop up on old theatrical posters or reissues of early recordings of The Sorcerer or Patience, and what if the world in which they moved did not altogether resemble one of their own operettas? It may come to seem typical of the late twentieth century, this need to look for an ultimate grittiness in even the smoothest confections, this reluctance to let trivial pleasures exist on their own terms. It is not a matter of exposing anything particularly sensational, although the film’s advertising speaks enticingly of “The Women. The Scandals.” On the contrary, it puts under the …