Topsy-Turvy – 1999 | 160 mins | Drama | Colour
Mike Leigh‘s Topsy-Turvy, a film as unlike Secrets and Lies or Naked as it is possible to get. The problem for some is that they’ve scarcely heard of Gilbert and Sullivan, upon whose careers Leigh’s first period film is based. This is Leigh’s most ambitious project yet, a 156 minute musical epic containing much excellent design and some superb performances.
Leigh concentrates on the period between the 1884 D’Oyly Carte production of the relatively unsuccessful Princess Ida and the highly popular The Mikado, first produced at the Savoy Theatre in 1885. After Ida, Gilbert was dubbed “the king of topsy-turvydom” and Sullivan decided to write no more music for comic operettas. Eventually persuaded to continue, he struck gold with The Mikado.
Leigh seems determined to stuff some reality back into the well-worn clichés of the back-stage musical. There is no attempt to smarten up the set pieces for contemporary tastes. Aided by the excellent arrangements of Carl Davis and the stagework of Gary Yershon, the musical performances look totally authentic for the era, without being set in D’Oyly Carte aspic. Leigh’s definitive depiction of the rehearsal stages will be recognised by anyone with anything to do with the theatre as among the most accurate in the history of the genre, and shining through is his obvious love of the operettas. But is this really a musical at all? Not quite. It is more a crowded, but still effectively intimate portrait of a society determined to enjoy itself’ but still assailed by doubts. It is ironic, but rarely descends into parody. It inhabits the Edwardian psyche with extraordinary skill.
Jim Broadbent as the testy, slightly depressive Gilbert and Allan Corduner as the bon viveur Sullivan are outstanding, and the rest of the large cast are not far behind them: Timothy Spall as the leading baritone Richard Temple, Dorothy Atkinson as the soubrette Jessie Bond and Kevin McKidd as the tenor Durward Lely are notable. Technically, Topsy-Turvy is as orthodox a period piece as you could imagine. But within that framework it is constantly surprising, in both its writing and performance. It is funny, tender, sharp and moving and forces you to look again at one of the most remarkable musical partnerships and at the time in which it was forged.
Review© Derek Malcolm
Mike Leigh: Director
Dick Pope: Cinematography
Lindy Hemming: Costume Design
Robin Sales: Editing
Trefor Proud: Make-up Dept
Christine Blundell: Make-up Dept
Carl Davis: Original Music
Simon Channing-Williams: Producer
Eve Stewart: Production Design
Mike Leigh: Script
Tim Fraser: Sound Dept
Orin Beaton: Sound Dept