TWO STARS - Shallow
Nothing hinders the creative process more than the demand that a person create on schedule. With bills to pay and theaters to fill, those whose livelihood depends upon their next creative work can easily feel as though they are prostituting their souls. And yet, the industry built to produce and market their work is unrelenting in its demands that they produce.
This truth, though only weakly explored, is the theme of Mike Leigh's film,"Topsy-Turvy," which gives tribute to Gilbert and Sullivan's creative corroboration.
As the king of “Topsy-turvy-dom” Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) is a genius in writing a story in which the primary characters are turned “upside-down.” But after 10 successful musical operettas, including “H.M. S. Pinafore” (1878) and “The Pirates of Penzance” (1879), his creativity has become predictable and formulaic.
His partner, Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is not only bored with their corroboration, but the demand he is placing on himself takes a spiritual, emotional and physical toll as well. After their bland creation called “Princess Ida” (1884), Sullivan decides to take an indefinite leave of absence to get well.
It is then that the film presents Sir Arthur Sullivan, a profane womanizer who was knighted by the Queen of England.
In a scene that is intended to show his shallow character, Sullivan goes to a brothel in Paris where he is entertained in a cartoonish, vulgar manner. Seeking a cure for his exhaustion, he looks to distractions to heal his spirit.
This reveals a truth about the creative process. When a person does not renew his body, mind, and spirit as a whole, the soul becomes impoverished and results in a physical and spiritual malaise.
Gilbert, on the other hand, is assisted by a lonely but wise wife. Knowing that Gilbert needs to get out from under the depression of his own emptiness, Lucy (Lesley Manville) takes Gilbert to a Japanese cultural exhibit. There, Gilbert is unwittingly captivated by the exotic costumes and theater of the Japanese people.
When he returns home and places a samurai sword as a trophy above the door of his office, it falls on his head and becomes a moment of inspiration. It is then that he begins to create their most effective work, “The Mikado” (1885).
This is most often the way the soul creates. It is not by demanding that the creative spirit fill an assignment - like that of supplying the need for the Savoy Theater to produce another musical. When that is the only force at work in the artist’s mind and soul, then it is more likely that old creations will only be reworked.
Creativity by its very nature, must strike a person as an extension of their life experiences. This is why the lives of our artists matter to us all, because all of their beliefs and experiences effect their creations.
If, as Sullivan chose, our artists become vulgar womanizers, bored with life and themselves, drowning their boredom in alcohol, parties and empty relationships, then their art will reflect their empty lives.
But if, as Gilbert experienced, our artists reach out to meaningful experiences that enrich our appreciation of other people and cultures, beliefs, music and art, then out of that depth will come a work of value and originality.
This is where the film could have given us a valuable message. Instead, we are given a creative and humorous reenactment of the production of "The
Mikado" with little insight into why they chose to do it.
If Leigh had chosen to help us explore both the inner workings of Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s souls, we would have a work of art equal to their unique corroborations. Instead, we are left only to wonder at the larger lives both men chose to live.
Like the operettas they wrote, their lives are presented to us in a topsy-turvy form. The important aspects of life, namely marriage, friendship, religion and faith are shown to have very little importance. But their songs, lyrics, costumes, fights and their meticulous attention to detail are given long hours of exploration. In the end, we understand little of their lives that have universal or transcendent value and are left with an empty sense of nothing.
In the most moving scene of the film after the success of “The Mikado,” Gilbert is sitting with his wife as she attempts to speak directly into his soul from the emptiness of her own. The message is clear that she longs to have children and become a family and share their humanity. But Gilbert only hears it through the ears of a playwright and seems incapable of actually living a life of his own. This is truly upside down and topsy-turvy.