Review by Scott Renshaw
Topsy-Turvy is not a bio-pic in the conventional sense of the term. It's a bio-pic in the Mike Leigh sense of the term, which may be redundant. However, it may not even be appropriate to call it a Mike Leigh film in the conventional sense of the term. Leigh has spent most of his career on contemporary character studies, structuring scripts out of character improvisations. One does not think of period pieces when one thinks of Mike Leigh, nor would one likely think of him as the ideal film-maker to look behind the scenes at the creation of Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado." How would this fashioner of human drama approach the fashioning of light opera?
As it turns out, he does so with detail, detail and more detail -- occasionally to nerve-wracking excess. The story opens in 1884, where "Princess Ida" -- the latest creation of the immensely popular team of lyricist William S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) -- is receiving tepid notices for the excessive familiarity of its themes. Gilbert responds defensively, retiring to write his latest fanciful libretto, while the ailing Sullivan resolves never to write light opera again. He is persuaded to reconsider when Gilbert attends a Japanese exposition and comes up with one of his most original ideas in years. But the concept for "The Mikado" is only the beginning of the arduous process of staging it.
When Topsy-Turvy finally hits its stride, with Gilbert's visit to the exposition, it's an extraordinarily entertaining piece of work. Leigh dives into the pre-production process with gusto, exploring every possible element of a theater company's work. The rehearsal scene, in which Gilbert attends to the details of pacing and the inconvenient absence of two actors, is hilarious even in its attention to the mundane; a scene of Gilbert using Japanese women as advisors for cultural authenticity has a similarly unexpected charm. Leigh even finds drama in the finances of theater, creating a nice scene in which the theater's manager (Ron Cook) negotiates salary with featured performer George Grossmith (Martin Savage). You know a film-maker is doing something right when he can wring comedy out of a wardrobe session, and drama out of whether or not a song will be cut from the production.
It would be easy to embrace Topsy-Turvy unreservedly if Leigh seemed to know what to cut from his own production. Even at 160 minutes, the film never seems tedious; it does, however, seem unnecessarily meandering. There are detours into Sullivan's European trip to recharge his batteries, brief explorations of Gilbert's contentious relationship with his mother and a late surge of sympathy for Gilbert's perpetually abandoned wife (Lesley Manville). Leigh also goes overboard in the inclusion of musical numbers, giving us full-scale recreations of at least a half-dozen songs from three different productions. While the inclusion of some Gilbert and Sullivan work would seem necessary as context, Leigh takes too much liberty with the length and breadth of his musical interludes. By the end of Topsy-Turvy you may feel you've sat through "Princess Ida" and "The Mikado" in their entirety.
In most films, the extra weight would probably have sunk the whole endeavor. Blessedly, Topsy-Turvy is that rare film that gets better with every passing minute, building to that enchanting final hour of preparation for production. Still more blessedly, Leigh has put together another superb cast to give the scenes as much bite as possible, including Leigh veterans like Alison Steadman (Life is Sweet) and Timothy Spall (Secrets & Lies). Most blessedly of all, he has Allan Corduner and Jim Broadbent in his lead roles giving two of the best performances of the year. Broadbent's Gilbert has a bit more to w
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