Topsy-Turvy (1999)



a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Topsy-Turvy is another elaborate exhibit of director Mike Leigh’s talent. But viewers should be cautioned that this time Leigh is much more interested in recreating a time and a place than he is in telling a story. Thus, it isn’t the kind of period-piece costume party we’ve come to expect. Adventurous moviegoers will be thrilled to experience something new and thought-provoking. Most moviegoers will probably write it off as “just not very exciting.”

Leigh seems determined to plunge us into as convincing a context as possible… that context being the relationship and creative processes of the famed Gilbert and Sullivan, and the environment of the Savoy Theatre, where they unfurled so many of their elaborate musicals. And it is convincing. As always, Leigh takes his time, collaborating with his talented cast to create personalities that are bittersweet, believable, and full of life and humor.

We begin watching the popular pair on the verge of creative breakdown. Gilbert, the lyricist, is accused by his longtime partner of redundancy in his recent plays, and Sullivan will not listen when the Savoy managers plead with him to compose music for Gilbert’s latest derivative work. Gilbert sinks into a depression, until he discovers quite unexpectedly the bizarre and bewildering styles of Japanese theatre. He promptly sets about to write a “Japanese opera”, which became a lasting favorite known as “The Mikado.” Sullivan is delighted at Gilbert’s sudden interest in trying something new. They charge ahead, Gilbert confounding everyone with his extreme measures in creating scenes that are “authentically Japanese.”

Actor Jim Broadbent deserved an Oscar nomination for his work as Gilbert; you can’t take your eyes off him. His huge personality, his intimidating presence, his somewhat comical seriousness dominate every scene he is in. All of the other actors are splendid as well, but nobody has quite the magnetism of Broadbent. If he ever finds a greater role, I’ll be amazed. [UPDATE: He did find a better role, in Iris.]

Something is lost in Leigh’s decision to paint on such a large canvas. I missed the close character studies that made his film Secrets and Lies such a revelation (and one of the best films of the 90s.) Topsy Turvy has nothing like the moral dilemmas, the melodrama, and the humor of that great work. But Leigh allows so much improvisational creativity on the sets of his films that each project is bound to be different from the last.

This is even more of a “period piece” than a Merchant/Ivory film, alive with details of the time and place and yet not calling those details to our attention or feeling responsible to explain them to us. There are no stirring love stories, no dramatic disasters… and even the troubled relationship between the two artists never inspires more than a furrowed brow in the viewer.

Rather, I think the writers and actors were more interested in getting into the skin of these dramatists and finding out just what brought about such bombastic and amusing productions. A generous amount of time is given to performances of the musicals themselves, so this stands as an effective introduction to their material for those without any G&S experience.

So what can be gained from a film like this, beyond a history lesson? Certainly we can draw parallels between the easy-to-please natures of modern audiences and the audiences at the Savoy. Popular entertainment remains a trendy, unoriginal, and manipulative genre. I found it an interesting look at the challenge each artist faces when he or she has a success: How can he or she keep from repeating the same formula? Some interesting discussion could be had over the sufferings of those close to Gilbert and Sullivan, especially Gilbert’s wife who ends up being “kept” like a favorite pet, lonely, with nothing to dream, and nobody to really listen to her. Just how far should an artist go in their passion when it saps the strengths and resources of others? Where should Gilbert’s priorities be?

Sadly, the film was too realistic for American audiences and Academy voters, who only knew to give it kudos for its decoration. All in all, it is an enlightening exploration of how artists must sometimes shake off the familiar and journey into unknown territory before they find inspiration enough to keep from repeating themselves. And that’s what makes Mike Leigh’s filmmaking career so exciting. You just never know where he’s going to take us next, and what he’ll discover there.

Writer/director – Mike Leigh
Director of photography – Dick Pope
Editor – Robin Sales
Music – Carl Davis, from the works of Arthur Sullivan
Production designer – Eve Stewart
Producer – Simon Channing-WilliamsUSA Films. 160 minutes. This film is not rated.

STARRING: Dorothy Atkinson (Jessie Bond), Jim Broadbent (W. S. Gilbert), Ron Cook (Richard D’Oyly Carte), Allan Corduner (Arthur Sullivan), Eleanor David (Fanny Ronalds), Shirley Henderson (Leonora Braham), Lesley Manville (Lucy Gilbert), Kevin McKidd (Durward Lely), Wendy Nottingham (Helen Lenoir), Martin Savage (George Grossmith), Timothy Spall (Richard Temple) and Alison Steadman (Madame Leon).


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