by Brenda W. Clough
There is a grand and glorious tradition of backstage movies and plays, and Topsy-Turvy (1999) fits right in with them. Follies, Birdman, A Star is Born, Curtains, Annie Get Your Gun, Cabaret — all of these have the same enchantment of Tolkien. You can go to a strange new world, full of activities and artifacts and motives that are totally unknown to you in your mundane daily existence. Novelists mostly do not write novels about writing novels — I can’t think of anything duller! (Although I have written a backstage novel about a near-future musical production, and one of these days it’s appearing here at Book View). But dramas about drama, movies about movie-making, seems to come easy.
This movie is the most luscious valentine imaginable to Gilbert & Sullivan. You would think that comic operettas like The Mikado would be fun and easy to write, but no. As William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan struggle with each other and their mutual creativity, it’s like the Trojan War — a perpetual and undying subject for art. The actors all sing their stage roles, and it’s delightful. No G&S maven should miss this one.
More fascinating even that that, however, is the artistic choices. This is not one of those tight-focused works where every incident, every word and gesture, drive the plot forward to the climax. It is more slice-of-life. If you hopped into your time machine and went back to 1885 this is what you might see — people living, a little slice out of the long fabric of their lives. Does Sir Arthur ever recover from his kidney stone? Does the actor really use drugs? Was it the oysters responsible for those tummy upsets, and why did that happen at this point? You never really learn, because that knowledge is not part of this tiny slice of their lives.
And partly as a result of this directorial choice, the view of late-Victorian London is superb — director Mike Leigh is an amazing researcher. (This is the director I want, if the novel I am writing now ever goes to film — ignore me, a girl can dream, can’t she?) Maniacal set-dressing and costume work was done for this. It is a confection for the eye, not to be missed if you’re researching the period.. So you have it all, looks, brains, and music — a triple threat!
My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.