on March 18, 2002
1999 was a rather unusual year because a large number of small movies got into the mainstream, from Blair Witch Project to Boys Don't Cry. Here we have an English treat from Mike Leigh called Topsy-Turvy. I thought it was lots of fun, but in reading this review, you can decide if it might cheer you up or drive you to distraction.
In late 19th Century England, Gilbert and Sullivan were at the top of the heap in the musical theater. They reinvented it, like Jerome Kern did in the 1920s, Rogers and Hammerstein in the 1950s and Bob Fosse in the 1970s. Tastes change, and what they wrote over one hundred years ago doesn't sound pop to our ears. It sounds classical. The truth is that they were theatrical entrepreneurs as well, much like Andrew Lloyd Webber is today. Topsy-Turvy is a look at a very interesting slice of their successful but tumultuous lives.
As the movie opens, they are middle-aged. Arthur Sullivan [Allan Corduner] is at home recovering from an illness which we suspect was caused by his raucous lifestyle. He is witty, debonair and lusty. He has a pretty mistress and travels often to Paris to enjoy its delights. William Gilbert [Jim Broadbent] is just the opposite. Though ultimately lovable, he is moody, bossy, obsessive and often grumpy. Together with impresario Richard D'Orly-Carte, they put on their musicals at the lavish Savoy Theater, which they own. Their newest work is a critical failure. The public is staying away in droves, and closing is imminent. A new musical must be written at once. They are obligated to do so, but Sullivan, having worked with sour-pussed Gilbert for nearly two decades, it ready to quit and go one to something else. They have a great fight and quit speaking to each other. It seems to be all finished, but their greatest work is yet to come.
The movie is the best British period piece in some time. The sets, the costumes and the music, which is glorious, seem quite authentic. The performances are excellent. Perhaps best of all, we get a detailed look at how the theater worked then and how it probably still works. We see the accounting, the costume making, the staging, the rehearsals, the casting and more. There are detailed looks at the cast members - who they are, how they work, and even what their habits are. It's all done in a way that is far more comedic than dramatic. These people go through torture, but they are, one and all, fast-talking, quick witty troupers.
If the movie has a drawback, it is its length. At two hours and forty minutes, it seems lie it could have used a twenty to thirty minutes trim. Still, director Mike Leigh, previously know for modern working-class dramas, felt he had to show it all, and I, for one, would not know where to begin cutting Topsy-Turvy. Perhaps the running time is justified.
on January 18, 2002
Topsy-Turvy (to the extent that it's "about" anything) is about Gilbert and Sullivan and the making of The Mikado (definitely one of their best works.) I love Gilbert and Sullivan's work, and I knew that the story of their relationship was very interesting. The previews also looked very interesting, so I was quite anxious to see this film. The actual film was hugely disappointing to me, however.
I am a firm believer in the importance of plot in filmmaking. If you do not believe plot is important, or do not demand a fast pace in the absence of plot, you may quite enjoy the meandering nature of this visually appealing slice of Victorian life. For me, though, the film never quite clicked on any level.
I could definitely see the things that others liked about the film: The casting was good, the acting was excellent, the cinematography was beautiful, and the film definitely reproduced the feel of its era effectively. It featured excellent renditions of several bits of The Mikado (though these performances were overly static in order to preserve the Victorian feel.)
What the film didn't do, though, was entertain, tell a really interesting story, or even educate effectively. It had all the elements of a great Victorian drama without much actual drama, and the elements of a refined Victorian comedy with very little actual humor.
There were far too many little subplots (drug-addicted singers, and the like) whose sole purpose seemed to be either to give bit players the opportunity to show they could act or to impart minor bits of historical information. The problem was, there was no follow-up on any of these scenes. Something seemingly momentous would happenm but there would be no effect on anything else anywhere in the movie. I realize that the filmmakers were trying for historical accuracy, but this is supposed to be a movie, not a documentary. (If it were a documentary, of course, they could just tell you what happened in such cases).
The film covers a relatively short period in the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan, and as a result we never get to see the real blow-ups between them (the arguments we see seem on the order of minor spats). We don't get to follow the development of their careers, the course of their relationship, or anything of the sort. We simply see how The Mikado got them out of a temporary creative rut, interspersed with random bits about the people in their lives. A number of scenes clearly had the feel of improvisations constructed on the spot to illustrate one fact or another, regardless of whether the fact really deserved the five minutes of screen time such an improvisation would take.
Also notably missing from the film was humor, which is particularly annoying since the film focused primarily on one of the foremost humorists in a time when people went to great effort to speak wittily. There were mildly humorous bits interspersed throughout, but not with sufficient frequency that this film could in any way be considered a comedy.
Perhaps tighter editing would at least have prevented the film from wandering quite so aimlessly. Perhaps a higher proportion of performance clips would have made the whole more lively. Perhaps the filmmakers could have chucked historical verisimilitude and just gone for an entertaining take on the whole story of Gilbert and Sullivan. As it is, though, I just felt that this film was mostly a waste of my time.
on November 26, 2001
When this movie was originally released last year....I refrained. Maybe I was afraid that two peoples whose work I very much admired wouldnt be treated with the respect they deserve seeing as the music and sensibilities can appear a bit dated to those not enthralled with it. But a few weeks ago, I just happened to watch it on cable and...its absolutely brilliant!
This movie is a showcase in subtle storytelling and directing..little by little the director pulls you in to the world of G&S so much so that even non-fans could follow the story and appreciate it. And of course, long time G&S fans will be tickled pink to get a bit of an inside view into the minds and lives of the men who gave us the musicals we love so well.
What can I say?..The acting is superb, the storytelling is wonderfully sublime..and this movie is absolutely hilarious at time( namesly, the corsett controversy). I mean...were it not for the laws of time and space..at times I almost could believe I was watching more a documentary than a movie, the performances were so real. And of course...the icing on top is the music. If you are a true G&S fan, you will find yourself humming along to alot of the tunes, and the reherasal and performance scenes will tease you, esp if like me, u havent had the good fortune to ever see a play of thiers performed live. All in all, this movie is a gem, and ranks high on my list of the best period piece movies of all time. Good work Mr.Leigh-A.N.
p.s.- of course, it doesnt hurt that pic quality and cinematography is very lush and colorful..they went the extra mile to recreate the mid-late 19th century accurately
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 August 9, 2001
OK, I must admit that I've never heard of G&S before. I probably heard the music but didn't pay any attention, who knows. The important thing is, I'm absolutely stunned! I've watched the movie 10 times already, I bought two different productions of The Mikado on CD's (both by D'Oyly Carte) already. I can't have enough of listening in my car. BUT, when I get home, all I want to do is watch the movie again and again. They have The Mikado performance in New York right now, but it's that *strange* "black and white" 20's version which I'm not so sure about. Anyway, everything I am right now (who knows for how long though) is thanks to this beautiful, mesmerizing film. If you REALLY like music (not necessarily an opera), buy it, rent it, get it any way you can and ENJOY!!! It may change your life FOREVER (or for a short while, but that's pretty good anyway)!
PS For the Opera politicians ready to flame me: My favorite opera is Evgeny (not Eugene please) Onegin (in Russian of course, it's Pushkin for Christ sake, how can you translate it). And, I can't wait for the premier of War and Peace by Konchalovsky at the MET I am Russian and I wouldn't take anything less than a real English opera being sung in REAL English and real Russian opera being sung in REAL Russian. Italian - who cares, nobody REALLY speaks the language anyway... Oh, Lakme is probably another my all times favorite. Funny, I've never seen La Boheme...
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 17, 2001
From beginning to end, this film is a flawless gem of acting, set design, costumes, make-up, MUSIC, direction, editing, and on and on. I will admit I knew very little of Gilbert and Sullivan beyond that they were the creators of several Victorian-period operettas. Now, after having first renting the film and the purchasing the DVD, I'm totally engrossed with the lives of all of the D'Oyly Carte company of the period in the story. To single out any one performance as exceptional would be doing a disservice to the other 20 characters you'll meet in this film. It almost seems as if the historical persons themselves had taken the roles, because the portrayals are so seamless, so effortless and natural. The songs are excellent, and will have you humming them for days afterwards. My children put this film on the machine themselves to hear the musical portions again and again. Rated R for a brief, comical French brothel scene, the film is otherwise completely suitable for a family to watch, although the character development is comprehensive and might puzzle and/or make younger viewers fidgety in its length. But that development is what makes all of these delightful people come alive. Each of the characters is so finely painted that you'll feel that they're good friends of yours when the final, beautiful scene fades off the screen.
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 28, 2000
This is hands-down one of the best - if not THE best - films of 1999. I don't understand how this film was so severely overlooked at last year's Oscars.
The ensemble cast is extraordinary, the musical performances outstanding, and the glimpse of a little discussed era in musical history provocative and, boy, is it entertaining! It is one of the few films I've seen where I actually thought about viewing it a second time directly after the first because I enjoyed it so much.
I had meant to see it in the theater - everyone I knew who had seen it loved it - but time got away from me and before I knew it, this film wasn't running in theaters anymore. Seeing it for the first time on DVD is the next best thing.
Mike Leigh's direction, as always, is seamless. You lose sight of the fact that these are actors up there on screen, so convincingly are each of the characters portrayed. Allan Corduner and Jim Broadbent as Gilbert and Sullivan steal the show but the supporting cast does terrific work as well, especially Timothy Spall as an older singer whose career is coming to an end and Shirley Henderson as a young soprano and a single mother with a little boy at home to feed. The film's final moment belongs to her and it's a spinetingling one at that.
While there is much here that is humorous - and vividly colorful - Mike Leigh gives us glimpses of the squalor that was rampant in London at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution. Scenes of opulence are contrasted sharply with gray, sooty back alleys where prostitutes lurk. An atmosphere of death and sickness pervade throughout.
Hats off to cast and crew! This is a marvelous cinematic acheivement indeed!