on July 4, 2004
While somewhat self-indulgent in its length (over two hours!), it's a complete delight in every way. Leigh's dialogue is as witty as his direction is fluid, the music is glorious, and the performances polished from almost everyone in the ensemble.
The principal reservation I have is that those of us 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? (P.S. The features on the DVD take care of this, so they may be worth watching prior to the movie.)
Yet, Leigh evokes a very authentic atmosphere, creates credible characterisations, and is ultimately not afraid to balance the realities behind the performances with certain matters left in the air at the end. The passion for art (whether it be Gilbert & Sullivan operettas or, you know, clay sculpture) is what burns intensely in this movie. Some may judge this film as stuffy or high-nose, but the tremendous heart of this film is almost impossible not to be carried away by.
A very unusual but satisfying treat.
on December 28, 2002
"Topsy Turvy" is more than just a "play within a play" although it works very well at that level. We see the genesis of Gilbert and Sullivan's best-known work "The Mikado" after the partnership has gone through a low spell, and get enough scenes from its staging (and that of other G & S "Savoy operas") to satisfy all but the keenest of Savoayards. We enjoy immensely the way in which the premiere is rehearsed and pulled together under Gilbert's dictatorial directorship. It is all very funny but there is a darker side in the world outside. The relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan and the efforts that the impresario D'Oyley Carte and his team have to make to keep them working together are very well set out and the niceties of class distinctions in Victorian London and among the theatre people are clear.
The undoubted star is Jim Broadbent as a somewhat misanthropic Gilbert, capable of creating some of the wittiest plots and lines in the English language but not of expressing his own emotions to his dysfunctional family (we can see how he got the way he is!) or to his loving and long-suffering wife. Watch out, though for two characters who have appeared more recently in very different roles: Andy Serkis (voice and body model for Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings") as a quirky and outspoken choreographer, and Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle in "Harry Potter II") who has here a more substantial part as the attractive if egotistical lead soprano.
on October 11, 2001
...and that's actually not such a good thing--keeps it from getting five stars from me, and I'm sure that will break somebody's heart somewhere.
"Topsy Turvy" is an excellently put together piece, but the problem is that it is dreadfully long, so much so that I suspect it was actually a miniseries that they decided to release at a single sitting. The first half of the film depicts the two very different men who comprised the team of Gilbert and Sullivan. We see the rather trashy bon vivant lifestyle of Sullivan, living it up in a house of ill repute at one point, and this is contrasted to the stodgy household of Gilbert, who seems vaguely repressed in his marriage and has one old "w"itch of a mother. Now, there I was in the movie theatre on New Year's Day with some friends watching all this and I was doing alright for well over an hour, when suddenly I was seized with terror as the thought popped into my head: "Hey, isn't this movie supposed to be about the staging of 'The Mikado'? They're not even REMOTELY near that yet!" And so I knew that I was in for The Long Haul, a movie that seemed to last for five hours. And of course, they did a wonderful job of that whole sequence too, when they finally got round to it.
So, the thing to keep in mind with "Topsy Turvy" is this length. If you rent it, consider it a two-parter, and stop in the middle to sleep or whatever, and then come back to it the next day. Also, I think you really would have to have some appreciation for the oeuvre of Gilbert and Sullivan beforehand. Two of my friends were so into it that the film just breezed by for them, while a third woman just conked out and slept through a large part of it. "The Mikado" is one of G&S's best scores, and the singers turn in A+ performances as the original Mikado cast members--you get as caught up in their lives as with G&S's. Wonderful costuming and the traditional British eccentric acting help put the film over beautifully, provided that you've got enough grit to make it through to the credits. Rent well advised, and you'll do fine.
on June 30, 2001
Many reviews here categorize the film as "boring", and I can understand that anyone coming to Topsy-Turvy expecting a conventional plot might find it so. The film is really a series of vignettes, each a little gem, but only loosely tied together by the story of the development of The Mikado.
As the director states in the featurette, what's fascinating is the labour that went into the production of something so essentially trivial. Thus we get a very long scene of the rehearsal of a bit of dialogue -- a scene that advances the "plot" not one bit, but gives us insight into the actor's art and also into Gilbert's approach to the craft of directing. We see the rehearsal of the orchestra, the costume fitting, the contract negotiations, and many other aspects of the production, all presented with great attention to detail, and wonderfully acted.
If you don't enjoy documentaries and really need a plot to keep up your interest, by all means stay away from this film. For myself, I love it. It's also on a marvellous DVD that does full justice to the gorgeous sets and costumes. Even the menu is great fun, with a Japanese fan sweeping across as we move from one screen to the next.
on April 13, 2001
Mike Leigh directs movies like no one else: He lets his actors control a scene more than most directors would allow, to the point where sometimes there is no script per se. Topsy Turvy is a tight, wonderfully written story, and yet there is still that freshly candid feel to many of the scenes because of Leigh's signature relinquishing of control. The story of Gilbert and Sullivan's creative struggle before the inception of The Mikado is a classic tale of artistic partnership and of the lost-and-found muse. If you have ever, as a writer or musician, found yourself in the doldrums of creativity and struggled through it, this movie is a wonderful articulation of the tedium and exultation of that process. The love and resentment between Gilbert and Sullivan are beautifully characterized by Broadbent and Corduner. And it only begins there. The D'Oyly company and their relationship to one another and to their librettist and mentor Gilbert as they all struggle to produce The Mikado is subtly developed with a hyper-real texture that only Mike Leigh can possibly achieve. Mike Leigh loves his actors. He is in awe of them, and that kind of respect is otherwise non-existent in the movie industry.
on January 13, 2001
I have never liked Mike Leigh. His films are usually constructed by some months of his actors adlibbing dialogue to construct a script. The end result is something that I find artificial and his portrayal of working class people is often patronizing.
It was thus a shock that I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It is quite long over two hours but despite that the time flew despite almost nothing happening. I might also add that I have almost no knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan.
The movie covers the making of one of their productions the Mikardo. Sullivan the writer of the music has been concerned for sometime about his career and pines to write "serious music". After one of their productions fails Gilbert is asked to come up with another libretto. He does but Sullivan refuses to write any music as he sees the story as hackneyed. By chance Gilbert visits a Japanese exposition in London and starts to write a libretto set in Japan in such a way that the stage production can incorporate the costumes of what would have seemed at the time an exotic country.
The film then shows how a musical is constructed. The rehearsals, the decisions about costume design, what numbers to put in how directors work.
The problem that I have had with Mike Leigh's films is that actors are often not good people to write dialogue about normal events as it is outside their experience. In this case the film is about theatre and the dialogue is brilliant in showing the petty squabbles the interaction of the characters and so on.
All of the actors are brilliant and the film is shot almost entirely (except for a brief 30 second shot) in the studio. The costumes and the sets brilliantly evoke the period and the film is fascinating. For Gilbert and Sullivan fans the presentation of the music is fragmented so that they would probably not enjoy it. Still one of the more enjoyable films I have seen in a while.
on December 21, 2000
When I told people I had brought a film about Gilbert and Sullivan I received a lot of disgusted responses - what on earth would I want something like that for? But actually I've been a huge fan of G&S since my old school put on their own version of Ruddygore and my parents dragged me off to see Pirates of Penzance at the theatre!! I was intrigued by Topsy Turvey, not least because Mikado is one of my favourites, but because I didn't know what to expect from G&S as real life people. This film was an absolute eye-opener. It not only explores the production of Mikado and the relationship (or lack of) between Gilbert and Sullivan, but it also gives a glimpse into British life at that time. I think it provides wonderful viewing from script, scenery, acting and music. You do, ideally, need to be either a Gilbert and Sullivan fan or interested in becoming one, but this film is definitely a moving and educational masterpiece and I am only sorry that not enough people know about it!
on November 10, 2000
Even in Victorian London, there was no business like show business, according to this wonderful movie from British director Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies).
Topsy-Turvy is the visually opulent yet nitty-gritty, blow-by-blow backstage account of how composer Arthur Sullivan and librettist W.S. Gilbert, the team behind The Pirates of Penzance,wrote one of their greatest operettas, 1885's The Mikado,a whimsical Japanese fantasy.
The movie begins with a brazenly mundane shot of ushers routinely checking under seats; it ends 2 hours and 43 minutes later with The Mikado's leading lady, Leonora Braham (Shirley Henderson), alone onstage, raising goose bumps with a meltingly pretty "The Sun Whose Rays," which she sings with girlish flirtatiousness and a hint of womanly sorrow.
She's but one of dozens of characters-producers, actors, choristers, musicians-made flesh-and-blood in their touching vanity and hard professional drive. You don't have to give a fig about G&S to love this emotionally vibrant film.
on September 24, 2000
After having watched TOPSY-TURVY, I couldn't wait to buy the DVD for myself--not because I wanted to see the whole movie again, but because I wanted to see parts of it again and again. This is the quintessential movie to have in your own collection. The scenes of performances from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are better than I ever hope to see on stage, because they have been assembled and produced with meticulous attention to detail, transforming us right into the audiences in London at the turn of the century where people read Gilbert's libretto even as they watch the show on opening night. I was in fact surprised to see this authentic touch, for Gilbert's librettos, and the D'Oly Carte Opera Company, are noted for their precision of diction. If the words are that clearly sung, why follow the words on paper? The reason is Respect. There was enormous respect for Gilbert's phenomenal lyrical abilities. And imagine, those opening night audiences could even see and hear Sir Arthur Sullivan conducting the orchestra. If there ever was a "blast from the past," this movie is it!
The finest scenes in the movie--each worth the price of admission, as they say--are those actual scenes from the operettas. But the most mind-blowing scene of all is the extended scene of the rehearsal for "The Mikado," where we find Gilbert as director trying to get the right "look" for the show out of his actors. The actors resist him a bit (after all, all actors do), and we see that there must have been an enormous amount of trust in Gilbert to do it his way. What he wanted was, above all, authenticity--no overacting. Too many real-live performances of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas have I seen where overacting and mugging take over the show. The specific "English" humor of the G & S team is a straight-faced kind of humor, far more funny because the actors take the script seriously! The hilarity of the G & S vision is easily subverted if the actors think that their job on stage is to be individually funny. No, the show is an ensemble thing. It works as a group. And in the movie, we see the actors, individually, but also as members of a group of thespians. It is startling and a bit of wonderful to see these same people get up on stage and do their thing. And they do do it--really. All the actors in this movie are also stage performers. (You can get a clue about this because, for once, they are not all handsome and beautiful; if they were, then we'd know their voices were dubbed!) We share the suspense as we watch these actors, whom we have briefly come to know in the film, get up on stage and blow us away with the most magnificent scenes from "The Mikado" we'd ever hope to see!
Why then, only four stars? The film wastes too much time going into the relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan, and far too much time on Sullivan's declaration of independence--when he wants to write songs on his own, or write operas on his own. These were all failed attempts, so why resurrect them now? How much better this movie would have been if they had cut some of that extensive dialogue and cut "The Lost Chord" (a Sullivan "popular" song of its day), and instead given us a staged scene--or even two!--from "Pinafore" or "Patience." (I really missed "Pinafore"--I wonder what these actors in this film could have done with it.) I think the reason the producers and director took so much time with the book scenes was that they didn't want to waste all the research they had done into the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan. Somehow they failed to see that we don't want to be bogged down with their lives; we want to know something about them, to be sure, but in the same way we want to know something about the performers--we like to see how it all comes together on stage!
Bottom line: a DVD you must have in your collection; its value will grow over the years. A solid four-star film.
on August 14, 2000
The only fault I can make of this film is that it cannot seem to decide between being the story of the inspiration and creation of "The Mikado", or life in the theater of 1885 London. As the former it does an outstanding job. As the latter, it presents a great deal of ancillary information that, while interesting, slows the movie down. In particular, the first 40 minutes contains much more background on Sir Arthur Sullivan than is necessary, including a rather bizarre scene in a Parisian brothel that I suspect was solely responsible for the film's "R" rating. Once the impasse between Gilbert and Sullivan is broken by the creation of "The Mikado", the film takes off. The rehearsal scenes are delightful; humorous and well performed. The actual performance scenes are equally so. The music is infectious. This film gets better each time I watch it. Gilbert and Sullivan fans won't need much convincing but with a slow start and daunting length it is, admittedly, asking a lot of the audience. With such fine performances, it is worth the effort.