Topsy-Turvy (1999)

reviewed by
Harvey S. Karten

 Reviewed by Harvey Karten
 Director: Mike Leigh
 Writer: Mike Leigh
 Cast:  Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Timothy Spall, Leslie
Manville, Ron Cook

Have you ever wondered about the self-destructiveness of showbiz groups? No matter how successful their association, they tend to break up, the individuals rarely doing as well thereafter as when they were part of a flourishing team. Even when the entertainers stay together, personality clashes cause uncomfortable friction. Everyone knows that long-term collaborators Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice are not two peas in a pod. We have less information about the compatibility of Betty Comden with Adolph Green or Ira Gershwin with his brother George, Alan Jay Lerner with Frederick Loewe or George S. Kaufman with Moss Hart. Better known is the discord between William Schwenck Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, librettist and composer respectively of some of the world's most celebrated, joyous, and satiric operettas. Mike Leigh, known for his imaginative "Secrets and Lies" and for his less accessible "Naked," has just come out with a ravishing biopic about the two great composers of English operetta focusing (in the first half) on their discord while opening the movie up to a gorgeous second half featuring scenes from "The Mikado." This is the not the first time that G&S have had their lives translated to the screen. In 1953 Sidney Gilliat directed "The Great Gilbert and Sullivan" (known in Britain as "The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan"), which critic Leonard Maltin cited as "a flavorful biography of operetta composers with many highlights from their works."

Viewers who have mixed feelings about the film are likely to say that the first part drags while the second picks up in spectacle and entertainment value, but this is to disparage the subtle ways that Mike Leigh signifies the musical duo's conflict. They don't come out with fists flying in the style of David Fincher's "Fight Club" nor do they shout like Al Pacino in "The Insider." These folks are British, after all, and they sublimate their anger into their works, fourteen musical compositions which lightly and effectively satirize the British government and society of their Victorian times. As director Leigh graphically but delicately shows us, on the surface the incident which almost caused their falling out occurred after the critical and box-office flop in 1884 of the operetta "Princess Ida" whose libretto was written by William Schwenck Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and composed and directed by his colleague, Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner). At that point, Sullivan is ready to break the contract that the creative people had with producer Richard D'oyly Carte (Ron Cook) to come up with a new work every year because, Sullivan insists, the topsy-turvy (not believable) plots turned out by the librettist, all loose ends neatly tied together with contrived finales, were banal. After carefully taking in the many details woven into this stunning tapestry of a musical biopic, however, you might conclude that below the surface, what matters most are the personality differences. Gilbert is married, a cranky and uptight fellow who is shown to be uncomfortable with success and who has disappointed his wife--whom he has not let into his world. Sullivan, by contrast, is more of a free-living, easy-to-get-along with sort, of mild disposition, living with a mistress--a decidedly un-Victorian arrangement. One suspects that another cause of friction is the envy that Gilbert might have felt that he, unlike his partner, had not yet been given a title by the Queen. They are so estranged, in fact, that quite a bit of time passes in the film before we see the two men in the same frame.

Happily for the partnership, success comes when Lucy Gilbert (Lesley Manville), who is the librettist's wife, takes him kicking and screaming to a Japanese exhibition in London where Gilbert gets the idea for a new production of grander design and more resonance than anything done before. Thus, "The Mikado" is born.

Like Artisan Entertainment's "Illuminata," directed by John Turturro, this USA/October release takes us behind the stage to see what goes on during rehearsals--the personal problems and anxieties faced by the performers, the conflicts that at least two of the company have with the costume designer, the heartbreak caused when the cantankerous Gilbert decides just one day before the opening night of "The Mikado" to cut a major song delivered by its star, Richard Temple (Timothy Spall). These being Victorian times, the backstage scenarios highlight the priggishness of one performer who insists that wearing a Japanese outfit that runs down only to his knees would be undignified--to which the costume designer indignantly responds that he had carefully researched the outfits worn by the Japanese of medieval times.

While "Topsy-Turvy" is a departure from Mike Leigh's usual slice-of-life bent, the director makes clever use of fast- forwards to advance from the rehearsal of a single scene to its execution, then returns to the preparation period only to advance once again to the final, costumed delivery of the scene. The music is glorious and, in fact, the polished performances of this talented ensemble makes me lose some of the regard I've had for productions seen years ago which, by contrast, seem like amateur hour. The principal reservation I have is that those in the audience who may not be aficionados of G&S works will leave the theater in the dark about the themes of the compositions. Just what is "The Mikado"--a piece which lampoons British society but which distances the satire by situating the action in Japan? Leigh's dialogue is as witty as his direction is fluid and surely, come awards time, costume designer Lindy Hemming and production designer Eve Stuart should garner nominations. Sir Arthur Sullivan's music has been adapted for this picture by Carl Davis, all photographed by Dick Pope on location in Hertfordshire, Surrey and London as well as in a studio.

Rated R. Running Time: 160 minutes. (C) 1999 Harvey Karten,

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