Topsy Turvy is an astoundingly detailed, fantastic little movie centering on Gilbert and Sullivan mid-career, climaxing with the opening of The Mikado. If you do not like Gilbert and Sullivan, you will detest this movie, as there are tons of scenes that are lovely performances of their work (not just The Mikado) – however, if you love G&S, or even just like them, then you will enjoy this movie very well. Written and directed by Mike Leigh, (whose most famous work recently is Secrets and Lies), there is no doubt that his fine legion of stage actors provided some of the naturalness and warmth in the scenes, as I am led to understand that Leigh works largely scriptless, with improvisation. To that end, since they are performing well-known works, it is like an irony-free Waiting for Guffman – but utterly different. Those audience members unfamiliar with the rehearsal process might be surprised at the amount of work “even” a chorus member endures.
The cast is filled with largely unfamiliar faces to Americans(save that of W. S. Gilbert, played by Jim Broadbent, of Bullets over Broadway, Little Voice, and others), strong singers and TV and stage actors as delicious characters from the 19th century theatre: the married homosexual, the laudanum addict, the gouty ingenue, the single mother-cum-spinster, the practical Irish business woman. Having a huge group of new faces lends a tone to the film that is difficult to reproduce – between the casting and the unbelievable period detail (huzzah to the art department!), we are given an impression of actually having traveled back to their time to peek in their salons and rehearsal halls. The downside is that the IMDB is totally devoid of any information beyond the major cast members and Leigh.
As the backstage portion of the G&S love-fest, we see glimpses into Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s disparate home lives and their methods of creating their art. Allan Corduner, as Arthur Sullivan, presents us with a genius-in-waiting who indulges himself in all things. Lesley Manville turns in an interesting performance as Mrs. Gilbert, essentially a theatre widow with the forbearance and outward sunniness as was expected of women at the time. Both the men labor intensely on their plays to the exclusion of much else, even neglecting their health. Now, their work is perceived as fun, brilliant fluff, whereas for them (as in Shakespeare’s time) they were guns for hire, churning out product which they themselves found lacking. I wonder how today’s Hollywood product will look to us in 100 years.
Since the story is almost literally just a slice of their life (covering about 3 years, I was unsure of the exact chronology), the story arc is secondary to the sampling of the wares of the time. (This is a polite way of saying it is quite long but not boring) This is not to say there is no story – it just takes a while to become centered on the inspiration and production of The Mikado, so that it could hardly be called the focus of the film itself. But once that plot swings into life, the movie picks up its pace and purpose and becomes an amazing depiction of culture shock and “non-political-correctness” – or just plain old ignorance. It is amazing to see what a zoo-like atmosphere a visiting Japanese fair creates. I had seen the Mikado in performance, but it had never occurred to me that British people had simply never been exposed to that culture *at all* prior to seeing that operetta. Gilbert’s fastidious attention to detail and research and correctness aside, he still names his characters Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo.
I am pleased to report that I was able to turn my companion to the dark side – he clutched my sleeve in the darkness as the onscreen stage curtain dropped, and hissed urgently, “You must buy this DVD!” And so I should – there are many details and small moments that flitter by (not to mention drop-dead Victorian gowns that would make a grown seamstress cry) eclipsed by the other details and small moments that make this work such a glittering mosaic of a period piece. The last time I was this impressed by the production design and period detail was either Shakespeare in Love or Forgotten Silver. It’s a pleasant diversion, different from the works of the men it depicts, but equally enjoyable to the patient.
MPAA Rating R for a scene of risque nudity.
Release date 12/17/99
Time in minutes 160
Director Mike Leigh
Studio October Films