on May 28, 2000
Mike Leigh gives modern significance to Gilbert and Sullivan with his film Topsy-Turvy. Gilbert and Sullivan musicals seem horribly dated to modern sensibilty, but Leigh surpasses such thought to deliver a film showing that theater really hasn't changed much in the past hundred years. Leigh portrays life in the theatre more accurately than any other film released in the past few years. We see the entire arch of the creative process in developing a work of theatre. From the difficulty of collaborating to write a piece of theater, the back-stage alliances against the director, to the endless (and I mean ENDLESS) rehearsal process where you are forced to read lines again and again in a confined space, Leigh is dead on the money throughout. Anyone who has taken part in theatre (from playing the star in the christmas pagent, to starring in a broadway show) would appreciate this film. Other than that, the film is beautifully filmed with vibrant color to parallel the crazy atmosphere of Gilbert and Sullivan's work. Costuming is exquisite, especially the "Three Little Maids" scene. Wonderful ensemble of actors, check out the scene where Gilbert is sitting on his bed talking to his wife, it's just beautiful. I highly recommend this film, it is one of Leigh's best films, and one of the best films of 1999.
on August 24, 2000
I've watched Topsy Turvy twice so far and it's becoming one that I will watch over and over again anticipating enjoying some new facet of the presentation each time. I am a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and the staging of the Mikado in the film is a delight. If you enjoy music and watching the creative process unfold, you will find this movie a pleasure to watch. Mike Leigh's direction brings out the best in the actors and the staging, transporting the viewer back into Victorian England as W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan struggle with the task of providing Richard D'Oyly Carte's Savoy Theatre with yet another successful operetta.
An interesting sidelight to the film is that all the actors are actually singing or playing the instruments portrayed in the movie. Although some rate this movie as a little long, I found that the time passed quickly on both viewing occasions. The only scene I found a little out of place was the French bordello scene with Sullivan, which didn't fit with the overall tenor of the film. All in all however, Topsy Turvy is a delighful film well worth watching. It is definitely on my list of keepers.
on November 26, 2000
Topsy-Turvy takes to the world of 1885 London where Khartoum is under seige by The Mahdi and Gilbert & Sullivan have created a new operetta that is playing to very mixed reviews. The film opens to the release of a new operetta called Princess Ida, to less than falttering reviews. Gilbert takes the reviews badly and Sullivan decides he wants to write his long delayed grand opera. A new play by Sullivan does not improve the situation, it only gets worse as the two do not seem able to work together any longer.
Having reached a low point, we are shown how from this point of no return, something wonderful is created, The Mikado. We see how Gilbert obtains the inspiration visiting a Japanese exhibition with his wife. His enthusiasm is passed on to Sullivan and he writes some of the best music in the realm of light opera.
Watching Gilbert as director is engaging and entertaining. It also shows the master at work. The critique of 'Three Little Maids...' by visiting Japanese men and women from the exhibition is an important point in the film. Likewise Gilbert's initial decision to scrap the Mikado's solo just before opening night, only to change his mind at the urging of the men and women of the chorus. It speaks well of his ability and charecter.
Sullivan is likewise shown working with the singers and the orchestra as makes the magic of the operetta audible. An important point to see is that Sullivan was not always out in the pit directing the orchestra and singers. His very capable assistant is shown in this role and in the production rehersals of the play itself. A very balanced rendering of the facts of the matter.
THe casting is excellent. After I saw the movie, I looked up the original charecters on ther Gilbert & Sullivan Society webpage. Some of the resemblences to the original people of 1885 by the actors in this film was incredible.
I feel the film's length was acceptable as we are given a better understanding of lives of Gilbert and Sullivan. To have jumped right into the impasse without the preamble of the initial staging and reviews of Princess Ida would have been a disaster and destroyed a lot of the meaning of the film. That the producer and director did not shorten the film, is to their credit.
This is an ensemble performance that seems to be a specialty of the British. While Gilbert and Sullivan are central to the plot of the film, without the exceptional support given them by the rest of the cast a film such as this would never have gotten into production let alone been released.
Ther is one seeming inconsistency that, while not vital to the continuity of the film, is amusing. Watch for the first date at the beginning of the film and the later reference climactic conditions. See if you can see what it is I am amused by.
I rate it very highly and think any one with an interest in the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan should have this as a reference for their viewing pleasure. It is an exceptional film.
on July 16, 2000
I've been a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan for quite some time, and from the point of view of someone who has just about every recording of their operas made since the 1920s, this movie is, to quote their 1893 opera Utopia Limited, "a wonderful joy our eyes to bless."
The performances are very good, especially Jim Broadbent's masterful portrayal of W. S. Gilbert. Broadbent doesn't just play Gilbert, he *becomes* Gilbert, with all the mannerisms and quirks (to say the least!) involved in such a complex personality.
The music is, of course, fantastic. How could anyone not like it? :) It's sprinkled throughout the movie, a common thread binding the film together.
All of this goes into a fascinating and accurate portrayal of the events leading up to The Mikado. The arguments, the Lozenge Plot ("in this instance, it is a magic potion"), the last minute changes, Gilbert's inspiration, it's all covered in marvelous detail that never becomes boring. The film takes great care to be historically accurate, down to duplicating the sets and costumes used in the early D'Oyly Carte productions. The movie shows Victorian London in all its glory and all its flaws. If you want realism, this is it.
If you like Gilbert and Sullivan, this movie is a must! And even if not, it's still a great movie!
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 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 4, 2003
There is so much I love about this movie it is hard to try to find some coherent way to tell you why this is such a wonderful film. There is no way to tell you everything that I delight in, what follows will have to do.
Let's start with the way it evokes late 19th century London and the wonderful culture of that time. We are given wonderful and bright colors in the theatre and in the homes and businesses! We are charmed by the crude telephones (which were ultra-tech in those days), the fashions, the exotic mixing of truly disparate cultures who knew little of each other, the notions of the time of what was progressive (women smoking, "free love", and so on), the music making in salons and in private (the piano four-hands, the recital, and the reading to each other). What a magical evocation of a past age.
I also love the way it takes us into the making of musical theater (well, it is English - so theatre, I guess), with all the varied personalities with their often strange cares and woes. This was a time before agents and while stars still commanded higher pay, they had to try and get it themselves. The negotiations of the cast with D'oyly Carte are priceless, as is his masterful handling of the temperamental Sullivan, and the rigid Gilbert. And Wendy Nottingham plays Helen Lenoir (D'Oyly Carte's associate) with a charming steeliness that is captivating.
As Gilbert and Sullivan struggle with Sullivan's requirement he write a real opera rather than another topsy-turvy musical we get to see how Gilbert comes up with the idea for "The Mikado". And I love how the movie isn't linear. It is wonderful to see various numbers in all stages of preparation. From the earliest rehearsals, to reading lines with the stars and Gilbert correcting the pronunciation and improvisations to get them to hold to what he wrote and the way his lines scan. We even get to see the way cast members struggle when hard rehearsed numbers are cut (and restored).
Then there are the wonderful performances of the entire cast. Jim Broadbent and Lesley Manville have a magical chemistry as she cares for and helps a largely oblivious, yet loving Gilbert. He really is clueless, but talented and doesn't understand what he gets away with because of his talent. Ms Manville's performance is probably the most touching and beautiful in the film. On the other hand, Gilbert's encounters with his separated parents is an adventure into the strange and are both humorous and a bit frightening.
Allan Corduner's portrayal of Arthur Sullivan is another treasure the film gives us. Sullivan and his free-spirited entourage are a lot of fun, if a bit tired and dissipated. His liaisons with a wide range of women and his touching conversations with them are touching and a bit pathetic at the same time. However, it is wonderful to hear Victorian chamber music with all its sentimentality. It can somehow sounds a bit cloying to our jaded ears, but the movie does such a fantastic job of evoking the time that the music can be better understood and heard in its cultural context and we can hear with somewhat fresher ears than if we had just popped a disk into our CD player.
Timothy Spall and Martin Savage give great performances as stars in the company. They sing and perform as if they had done these operettas (the film calls them operas) all their lives. Maybe they did before they became famous film actors, but it is uncanny how good they are in their roles.
The frailties of the stars of the D'oyly Carte Company are manifold and provide other opportunities to see 19th century Victorianism up close without condemnation or praise. It is wonderfully done. The crazy and casual use of injected drugs, the constants imbibing of alcohol and the ubiquitous smoking also help us breathe in the culture of that time.
This is a great treasure from that wonderful opening scene with the white gloved attendants checking each theatre seat for proper functionality and cleanliness, to Gilbert's mad walk through the back streets of London during the premier of Mikado, to Leonora's soliloquy to her own beauty and her solo, "The Sun's Rays are All Ablaze" and everything in between are things to always treasure.
on November 23, 2003
This delightful retelling of the creation of the Gilbert and Sullivan masterpiece THE MIKADO is as improbable a product from the hands of Mike Leigh as a Hollywood shoot-'em-up would have been from Jane Campion. Leigh had made his reputation by crafting some amazingly intimate films about human relationships in films like the astonishing SECRETS AND LIES (which features in Brenda Blethyn one of the two or three greatest performances ever by an actress in any film). The idea of doing a historical recreation of Gilbert and Sullivan is not one that easily attaches itself to Leigh. Nonetheless, this film is in every sense masterful and entertaining.
With a director of the ability of Mike Leigh, it is no surprise that the film is superb as a production. Everything is superb about the film. The art direction and set design is extraordinary, and I can't imagine a historical film more compellingly done than this one. Moreover, the musical numbers are exquisitely done, and always convincing.
In the end, however, as superb as the direction and the design are, what drives this movie are the performers. This is a very fine ensemble cast, many of them Mike Leigh regulars, like the very fine Timothy Sprall, who winningly plays Richard Temple. Jim Broadbent has since the release of TOPSY-TURVY managed to establish himself as a superstar character actor through films like MOULIN ROUGE, NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, and IRIS (for which he won an Oscar). I always marvel at his range and his ability to sell any role. He is stellar here as the Stoic and emotionally conservative W. S. Gilbert. I really enjoyed Shirley Henderson (who I recently saw in a great Danish/Scottish film WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF, which I hope will get released in the United States) in her smallish role as a musical performer who is struggling with problems of addiction (like many others in the D'Oyly Carte company). The relatively unknown (at least in the U.S.) Martin Savage stands out as George Grossmith, the person who not only starred in the Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, but was the foremost musical stage performer of the late Victorian age, sort of London's answer to Mandy Patinkin a hundred years later. Grossmith also wrote a highly popular book with his brother Weedon, THE DIARY OF A NOBODY. I could go on and on about other performers who stood out in small but impressive roles, such as Lesley Manville, who has a heartbreaking scene as Gilbert's unfulfilled and quietly unhappy wife.
It has to be emphasized that this is not a movie only for fans of light opera. It really is irrelevant whether someone does or does not enjoy Gilbert and Sullivan. This is primarily a movie about people, about show business, and about how a group of flawed and merely human beings can collaborate in producing something phenomenal. This is not a niche film. It is a film to be enjoyed by anyone who enjoyed movies at their best.
on April 6, 2003
TOPSY-TURVY won two Oscars at the 2000 Academy Awards (costuming, make-up), and was hailed by critics of national standing as one of the year's best movies. Well, this review gives me the opportunity to demonstrate what a monumental low-brow I really am.
Set in mid-1880s London, the film is essentially the story of the conception and production of the comic opera "Mikado" by Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) and William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent). Sullivan, the composer, is an irrepressible bon vivant and the complete opposite of lyricist Gilbert, a serious businessman. The two ruled the city's stage scene for years, and T-T is a tribute to their remarkable partnership.
Unfortunately, I've never been a particular fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, and T-T is 160 interminable minutes of dialogue that was, for me, neither dramatic or comic, and the "action" proceeded at a glacial pace. The costuming and make-up deserved the Oscars they won, and Broadbent and Corduner do solid work, but how far can you go on those merits?
TOPSY-TURVY will engage those students of the live stage who are fascinated with the nuts and bolts of putting a production together. But I may as well have been watching two engineers collaborate on the design and construction of an assembly line for making wire hangers. Even the 15 minutes or so dedicated to showing "Mikado" as it finally appeared at the Savoy Theatre left me cold. "Mikado" is no "Cats", which I saw at least four times, or "Evita", which I saw thrice.
As I recall, T-T played locally only in the art houses, and even then not for very long. It apparently didn't appeal to the sweaty movie-going masses, of which, for once, I admit being a proud member.
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...