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Mike Leigh's gloriously entertaining film, `Topsy-Turvy,' offers a wise
witty slice of musical theater history. Set in 1880's London, the movie
chronicles the extraordinary personal and professional relationship
two giants of the 19th Century entertainment world, lyricist `Willie'
Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. The screenplay, wisely, chooses to
pick up the tale not at the very beginning of their collaborative career -
tracing its rise and fall as many biopics would do - but rather at the
where the team has already garnered international fame and success but
of late to be experiencing a bit of creative stagnation. Sullivan, tiring
of the seemingly trivial nature of the librettos they've been producing,
wants to break away and embark on his own to produce a work of more
`weighty' merit. Gilbert, on the other hand, delights in his success and,
although bothered by comments in the press that his work has begun to
itself, initially resists Sullivan's plea that they abandon their hitherto
Thus, the conflict between the two men of creative genius plays itself out against the fascinating backdrop of a deliciously recreated vision of the theatrical world of a hundred-odd years ago. Just as important to the film as the two main characters is the rich assortment of secondary players - theater proprietors, company actors, wives, lovers and parents - who swirl around the principals and provide a colorful tapestry to match the exquisite art direction and costuming that adorn the film. In addition, Leigh incorporates clever references to some of the technological marvels just making their appearance at the time: telephones, reservoir pens and luxury hotels with baths for every room!
Leigh's pacing is admirably unhurried and relaxed. So rich is the detail of his vision that fully thirty-five minutes elapse before the two lead characters even have their first scene together. In addition, the inspiration for `The Mikado' - ostensibly the centerpiece of the film's plot - doesn't strike Gilbert until well into the second hour. Yet, the film never falters in interest, least of all when Leigh devotes long stretches of footage to showing us the actors rehearsing their parts or having us eavesdrop on some behind-the-scenes salary negotiations or discussions of artistic differences. This is the real triumph of the film: Leigh opens up a world to us by letting us see the fascinating nuts-and-bolts aspects of the creative process to which we, as members of a theatre audience, are rarely privy. He also is not afraid to linger long over many a beautiful reproduction of the musical pieces themselves. Leigh can count his film a success in that it makes us want to rush out and catch a performance of one of these operettas ourselves.
The film would not be the splendid success it is were it not for the dazzling performances of its amazingly large cast. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner are perfection as the good-natured but often antagonistic partners, never playing the humor too broadly or violating the spirit of elite British gentility even in their most conflict-laden moments.
Indeed, it is this very quality of quiet subtlety that permeates every aspect of `Topsy-Turvy' and that makes it the wholly satisfying and entertaining film it is.
I loved this film, yet I have a hard time understanding many of the
other viewers have made. I never liked G&S all that much, thought they
rather light weight stuff. Never liked the late Victorian era much either.
Kind of a dull time, I thought. Musicals are definitely not my thing.
Yet this movie struck me as one of the greatest I have ever seen, right up there with Greed and Citizen Kane and all that lot. I suppose it's because I like period pieces, and I think it's damned difficult for anyone to draw an accurate -- or even an evocative -- picture of any time that is not their own. This movie does that, and it never even appears to strain so much as a single hair to do so.
In the end, this movie is deeply *humane.* Like many another Mike Leigh epic, the characters here are drawn in the round, flaws and talents all on view, just like real human beings. And he likes them all, even the stinkers. Likes them well enough to paint them as they are, not as cardboard figures.
If you like your characters pre-digested and redrawn larger than life and your plots full of twists and turns, you might find this movie tame. If you like people, you'll find it fascinating, funny, and true as gold.
And why do I rate it so highly? Because it hangs together so perfectly, all of a piece. It's luscious to look at, delightful to hear, and sweet as candy without ever once becoming saccharine or cheap.
Some reviewers complained you had to "already know" something to enjoy this movie: the music, the time, the language, the whatever. I say, all you have to know is human beings. If you find them interesting, you'll love this movie.
Simply put, a brilliant film.
Topsy Turvy captures Gilbert and Sullivan in the midst of a turbulent period in their partnership. Desperate to be taken more seriously as a composer, Arthur Sullivan attempts to renege on the Gilbert and Sullivan contract with the Savoy Theatre. While his partner William S Gilbert struggles to come up with something new to write about. Each man, in a sense, is longing for individual acclaim but they are trapped in an entity neither one can shake. The fame of their collective energies has taken on a life of its own and the theater crowds want more.
The film is mostly the story of a theater production of the Mikado, one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most famous operas. Director Mike Leigh, notorious for writing on the go, has structured a play within a play to a great delight. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner are brilliant as Gilbert and Sullivan, and Tim Spall has a wonderful turn as one of the actors, Mr. Temple.
Their is more here than just two playwrights. The entire cast is seen as more than just pieces of a production. From choristers to administrative personnel, Topsy Turvy is alive with characters. One of the best is Gilbert's long-suffering wife Kitty. Bereft of children and saddled with a husband who doesn't show outward affection, Kitty (Lucy) could be a two dimensional afterthought. However, her pain at being childless is wonderfully played by Lesley Manville. It is clear they love each other but neither is capable of articulating that love, very odd for a man who writes for a living.
Filled with humor and grace, Topsy Turvy is one of the best films about acting and a beautiful embrace of all things theatrical.
George Martin once talked about he and John Lennon once having a drink in a
British pub. One of the regulars went over to the jukebox and selected
"Yesterday." Lennon sighed, turned to Martin and said, "Don't suppose
anyone's going to put in 'I am the Walrus?'" Martin went on to suggest
as frustrated as Lennon was of Paul McCartney's "Granny Music," he also
couldn't deny McCartney's talent and the ease with which he came up with
One senses the same kind of rivalry between Arthur Sullivan and William Gilbert in Mike Leigh's "Topsy-Turvy." Gilbert and Sullivan were both famous for their hilarious musical comedies in the mid to late 1880s, especially their early hits "H.M.S. Pinafore" and "The Pirates of Penzance." But the film takes place later in their career and things are not boding well for the duo. Sullivan (Alan Corduner) is growing increasingly frustrated with his collaborations with Gilbert, because he feels he is not growing as a composer. "I'm growing tired of these soufflés with Gilbert and his topsy-turvvydom."
Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) is feeling the crunch himself. His latest production with Sullivan has resulted in questions concerning Gilbert's creative spark, as in whether he has one. If that isn't enough, the Savoy Theatre tells the frustrated Sullivan that he and Gilbert are contractually obligated to one more show. Gilbert presents Sullivan with an idea. Sullivan responds that the idea sounds like a remake of an earlier play.
Then inspiration comes from the most unlikely of places. A Japanese Exhibit is being held in London and Gilbert's wife, Kitty (Lesley Manville) forces him to accompany her. Reluctantly Gilbert goes and, reenergized, he picks up a souvenir Samurai sword. He meets with Sullivan again and tells him his idea: "The Mikado." Thus is born Gilbert and Sullivan's last hit play.
The next half of the film deals with the backstage politics and adventures that go with putting on a production. It is here where "Topsy-Turvy" goes into full gear and really begins to shine. Broadbent and Corduner also shine in their respective roles, as well. And it is here where I really paid attention to Leigh's characterizations. The two never had a very friendly relationship and Sullivan was openly bored with Gilbert's silly plays. I always took it for Gilbert being a really witty and good-humored man, and Sullivan being a snob. But Leigh has Sullivan as a fun-loving hedonist and Gilbert being unpersonable and sarcastic. He uses humor as a weapon. The film forced me to look at the two of them in a new light, and more importantly, I bought it.
But Leigh's real achievement is in presenting his supporting cast as three-dimensional characters. There's Richard Temple (Timothy Spall) who plays the Mikado and suffers near-betrayal at the hands of his mentor, Gilbert. Actresses Jessie Bond (Dorothy Atkinson) and Lenora Braham (Shirley Henderson) personify the reluctant acceptance of wearing a kimono with no corset. Leigh brings the same care to this period drama as he has done for his smaller ensemble pieces.
And care is what "Topsy-Turvy" is all about. As much as Sullivan may frown at Gilbert's wit, he still wants to create the best possible product he can. There's a great scene where Gilbert is explaining "The Mikado" to Sullivan and Sullivan is truly enjoying the story. He's got such a look of glee on his face throughout the scene. Corduner does a great job of contrasting his Sullivan with Broadbent's Gilbert, especially in his scenes with the orchestra as he patiently explains the score with his players.
Broadbent, on the other hand, is an absolute joy as Gilbert. Gilbert may not be a likable character, but he knows what he wants and he is good at what he does. He may be short with everyone and unbending, but he gets results.
Leigh shows a clear love for the theatre here, and the details are amazing all the way from the theatre set to the costumes, nothing is out of place. He also keeps the action moving in the film which totals almost three hours but never feels like it. That's very hard to do.
To be honest, I thought Leigh was jumping on the "Shakespeare in Love" bandwagon, but the films couldn't be more different. "Shakespeare in Love" celebrates love burgeoning creativity. "Topsy-Turvy" deals with the love of creativity itself and shows how people of different temperaments and tastes can still get together and produce greatness.
I was introduced to Gilbert & Sullivan in my very early teens under the
auspices of the parents of one of my friends. They took us to Falmouth
on Cape Cod to a place called Highfield, the summer home of the Oberlin
College Players. They specialized in G&S and other light operettas.
I learned to appreciate G&S, but I never became a fanatical devotee, even with the historical context patiently explained to me by my friend's mom. (It was similar with Shakespeare. The language could be a barrier rather than a gateway.)
The audience in the theater where I saw Topsy-Turvy was filled with devotees. You could hear their delight as they viewed the actual performances of Gilbert & Sullivan's work in the film. The director, Mike Leigh, through skillful editing and camera work, does an excellent job of photographing a stage presentation, certainly one of the best I've ever seen on film. He uses closeups, and though the actors are using an exaggerated, theatrical style, somehow the G&S material has never been clearer to me; and I've seen at least a dozen G&S performances, including two D'Oyle Carte productions (Pirates and The Mikado), the present-day descendant company of the Savoy Theater depicted in the film. People who have never seen G&S before will appreciate their work here.
Most of all, the film is very much about the highly contrasting personalities of William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, the former emotionally restrained, the latter a hedonist. Leigh allows us to get to know them quite well and a host of other characters too, though G&S are first among equals in this excellent, ensemble cast. Among the supporting players, I found Shirley Henderson to be increasingly interesting as the film progressed, and I felt rewarded when she was the central character in the last two scenes of the film.
The period settings, manners, and speech are very accurate and detailed. As presented here, the Victorian era seems physically stifling, with people leading their lives in the close quarters of dressing rooms, offices, restaurants, living rooms, and bedrooms. Even more stifling is the emotional inhibition masked by correctly blustery forthrightness. Toward the end of the film, there's a revealing and poignant scene between Gilbert and his wife which makes this all very clear, and what also becomes clear is how important theatrical presentations were to people then as a means of expressing themselves in a culture which sanctioned few quarters to do so. It's one of the best examples of Mike Leigh's direction.
The G&S operettas were, of course, a commentary on Victorian times. In the film, you can see why they were so wildly popular. In that period, I think so many people were so restrained and distant from their own feelings that even the, to us, mannered and wordy G&S operettas were a breath of fresh air in Victorian England. The few occasions when Leigh breaks out of consistently claustrophobic medium shots and closeups are when he gives us a wide view of the full, theatrical stage.
Topsy-Turvy is about how Gilbert and Sullivan refracted Victorian England through a proscenium arch. Mike Leigh refracts it again through the camera lens in a way that allows us to see ourselves in our times by looking at G&S and their operettas in theirs. This is a long film (over two and one half hours), and given the subject matter, not to everyone's interest, though it's far more than the specifics of the period and the material. I found it to be my favorite film of the year thus far, and I highly recommend it.
This period film is unique in that the writer/director chose not to invent
some contrived plot to push the movie along. It is as if we are simply
witness at crucial points during normal goings on in the lives of Gilbert
and Sullivan during the late 1800's. I found it fascinating and was not
aware of the length (almost 3 hours) during the picture.
If you have ever been in a musical, have a love of theater, or have any interest in the 1800's, you must see this film. From the superb acting, to the set design (amazing accuracy), to the technique - this film is a gem to behold.
TOPSY-TURVY, director Leigh's spectacularly entertaining look at the lives and times of the nineteenth-century British duo that gave the world such musical treasures as The Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore. Leigh's film finds G & S in 1884 at a creative impasse following the disappointing reception of their new flop operetta, Princess Ida. Sullivan (Allan Corduner), tired of writing music for the increasingly trite and repetitive librettos of Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), wants to give up their lucrative partnership and write "serious" grand opera. But when an exhibition of Japanese art and culture travelling through London inspires Gilbert to begin writing The Mikado, both men see the opportunity to create something unique and extraordinary. Praise for this stunning film must extend from top to bottom, beginning to end. The music, of course, is wonderful and ever present. The costumes, sets and cinematography are exemplary in their attention to atmosphere and detail. Leigh's script and direction not only bring the period to life, but make it crackle with drama, wit, and social comment. And the performances are fabulous, notably the magnificent Broadbent as mercurial Gilbert; Corduner, warm and charming as the more sweet-natured Sullivan; and Leigh regular Timothy Spall (SECRETS & LIES) as a veteran actor fearful that his big number may be cut. This is quite simply one of the most vastly entertaining, joyous and fascinating films ever made about the creative process. I actually saw it twice within a three-day period and wasn't bored for one second of either viewing!
I am a violinist who has done a lot of theater shows and have seen lots
of theater rehearsal.
For me this film has everything - the scenery is more lavish and beautiful than I've ever witnessed anywhere. For me, the interest _is_ the behind-the-scenes view of the actors. The fact that Allan Corduner (Sullivan) is actually a musician (not just miming the piano work) is a real plus. The scene of the recital of his "Lost Chord" was a marvelous musical moment. It captured the atmosphere of an old-style home recital, with earnest artists and elegant surroundings. And the rehearsal scene with the trio Grossmith (Koko), Barrington (Poo-bah), and Beauville each singing why they can't chop their own heads off is a marvelous view of what rehearsal can and should be like. Everyone has learned their words but now we're refining the artistry. The director assumes the viewer is well versed and doesn't beat him over the head. I feel honored that I am being treated as an intelligent watcher. When Gilbert says to Beauville, "I've gone to great length to give you triplets..... so let's do it again and let's ....'trip'", and they do, and it really works, I get the feeling that they live in and understand my world. Every moment of the film has for me a beauty.
The snippets of the other G&S operettas are astounding. The wake-up scene in The Sorcerer is probably only a minute long, but each word and glance is well chosen, and everyone is in perfect character. Like the cliché, "Every bride is beautiful.", every man and woman in this cast is beautiful.
Another remarkable moment in the film is Temple's "Mikado Song" when he dances, and the aftermath where Gilbert cuts the number and it then gets reinstated by the chorus men and women cornering Gilbert in the stairwell. My experience is that people in theater really do care for each other and they wish each other well. When someone does something of artistic merit, they know it, and want it to be displayed.
Almost every moment of this film rings true to me as a musician, and I treasure it. I can start this video at any random spot on the tape and find something to enjoy for 10 seconds or for another hour.
Because much of the film centers around Mikado, anyone who has ever worked on Mikado as an actor, crew, or musician will find much to enjoy. For someone who is not at all familiar with that operetta, I could understand them feeling that they can't see the continuity-- because the director has chosen not to repeat things. You will see this part and that part in preliminary stages of rehearsal but not again later, so if you saw the behind the scenes work, you won't see the 'finished product' except in the case of "Three Little Maids."
I was left wishing that this cast actually had created a full length version of Mikado, but alas I don't believe they did; all this work was for the sake of this film and it's not a documentary of an actual living repertory group.
Not being a big fan of opera (of the comedic variety or otherwise), I chose
to watch this movie as a period piece, hoping to see a lot of eccentric
characters putting on even more eccentric theatre. That was easy, since
trailer for the film points in that direction entirely.
What I didn't expect was a thoroughly entrancing inside view of the Victorian theatre. Not to mention comprehensive. Everyone is covered in this - from the stage boy through the chorus through the leads and producers and assistant directors. The telling of the complex relationships between the directors (Gilbert and Sullivan) and the leads is particularly poignant - whether dealing with the actors' considerable egos or their individual popularity among the chorus, nothing presented doesn't ring true.
I loved everything about this movie. It's a great story, told wonderfully by all involved. It is truly a film of much love and craft.
And I expect I'll be attending the next run of the Mikado next time it comes to town.
Much has been said here regarding the brilliant costumes, art direction
acting. The one thing I would like to point out is the misconception many
have had about the script itself.
Several comments here have claimed that the film is "clunky" in that several scenes apparently added nothing to the film. They also said there was no character development. I think these people need to realize that the depth they seek is contained in the very scenes they wished excised. Which show us all of the different aspects of these characters' lives.
While appearing to be unimportant, empty or simple these many scenes reveal incalculable depth and character insight. The rehearsal scene for just one example, while seeming initially to be a little comedic scene shows us the nature and attitude of both the author and the actors involved in their creative processes.
The performance scenes are also not superfluous as some have wrongly asserted. We can see the characters we have come to know and how they deal onstage with the problems we know they have in their lives: through expressing themselves in their art!!!
In addition the scenes are not arbitrarily strung together but all contain a subtle cause and effect throughline. Sometimes these are reversed as when a cause is revealed only after we have repeatedly seen the effect (as in the revelation of Grossman's illness). Many of the scenes which people have called "tacked on" at the end (like the stunning scene between Gilbert and his wife Kitty) are in fact set up in the earlier parts of the film if you pay close attention and are in actuality a natural progression of these relationships.
Even the very last scene when the leading lady sings is there to show us her identification with the song she is singing and therefore an indirect relationship with her lyricist and composer. This film needs to be seen more than once to appreciate how well constructed it truly is
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