"Whatever you do, do NOT refer to this film as a musical." That was the
proclamation of British filmmaker Mike Leigh when "Topsy-Turvy" was
screened at the New York Film Festival.
True, there are large-scale musical numbers, but these set pieces are
there to illustrate and, in some cases, advance the plot. Instead, what
Leigh has achieved is the most successful integration of theatrical
production numbers and comedy-drama since Bob Fosse tackled "Cabaret" in
the early 1970s. And like that movie, "Topsy-Turvy" is also set during a
period of upheaval, although one more subtly portrayed.
Fans of Leigh's "social surrealism" (best demonstrated in the
Oscar-nominated "Secrets & Lies" and the critically acclaimed "Life Is
Sweet" and "Naked") will be in for a bit of a shock. In attempting his
first large-scale period piece, the writer-director focuses not on the
proletariat but on a turning point in the collaboration between bon
vivant Sir Arthur Sullivan (a fine Alan Corduner) and the dour William
S. Gilbert (an appropriately irascible Jim Broadbent).
The Victorian era mores were beginning to loosen, and Leigh slyly
depicts this through Sullivan's relationship with the married Fanny
Ronalds (Eleanor David), in some cast members' objections to
loose-fitting costumes that press the boundaries of propriety, and by
introducing technological innovations such as a reservoir pen and the
What is perhaps most impressive about this film, however, is that Leigh
once again employed his tried and true methods of improvisations with
the cast before actually writing the script. Despite the confines of
historical fact, he has managed to craft an intriguing if overstuffed
jewel box of a film. Some will carp over its split between biopic and
backstage drama, while others may feel there are too many asides.
If Leigh has a weakness as a director, it is that he tends to include
extraneous material. In "Topsy-Turvy," there are several such
instances. On the other hand, Leigh is not a self-indulgent filmmaker;
those added sequences are there either to provide background or to give
a particular actor a moment. Still, there is a shapeless feel to the
material, as if burdened with an excess of riches, Leigh felt he had to
include it all.
The plot conflict arises from Sullivan's desire to compose loftier work
than the popular operettas for which he became renowned. He voices his
concerns that Gilbert (rankled by being called the "king of topsy-turvy"
by the august Times of London) is repeating himself, and the pair is at
loggerheads over fulfilling their contract with the Savoy Theatre.
Through happenstance, Gilbert hits upon an idea that develops into "The
Mikado," which rejuvenates their creative partnership.
On this rather slight outline, Leigh and company hang a visually and
aurally beautiful film. Cinematographer Dick Pope bathed the film in
crisp, clean lighting, lending it the look of history come alive, while
production designer Eve Stewart crafted astonishingly detailed interiors
and Lindy Hemming designed strikingly colorful costumes.
For the members of the D'Oyly Carte company, Leigh specifically hired
actors who could sing. Among the more notable are Kevin McKidd, Jessie
Bond, Timothy Spall and Martin Savage. While all of the actors turn in
fine work, special note must also be made of Lesley Manville, whose
heartbreaking performance as Gilbert's neglected wife gives the film
some added dimension.
For those who prefer a more straightforward and comprehensive
biographical film about the duo, they should check out 1953's "The Story
of Gilbert and Sullivan" with Robert Morley and Maurice Evans. Those
interested in a leisurely, if slightly meandering, but well-acted
depiction of creativity filtered through Gilbert and Sullivan should
check out "Topsy-Turvy."
* MPAA rating: R, for a scene of risque nudity.
Jim Broadbent: William S. Gilbert
Allan Corduner: Arthur Sullivan
Dexter Fletcher: Louis
Suki Smith: Clothilde
Wendy Nottingham: Helen Lenoir
A USA presentation. Director Mike Leigh. Screenplay Mike Leigh. Producer
Simon Channing-Williams. Director of photography Dick Pope. Editor Robin
Sales. Music Carl Davis and Arthur Sullivan. Production designer Eve
Stewart. Costume designer Linda Hemming. Running time: 2 hours, 40