Written and directed by Mike Leigh, Topsy-Turvy is the story about Gilbert and Sullivan’s attempt to create their greatest play in The Mikado as the two men fight each other creatively and personally through this 15-month ordeal that culminates with its premiere in 1885. While the film is a fictional account of the making of The Mikado, Leigh approach his same improvisational style to directing actors to explore what goes in the world of creating art. Starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Shirley Henderson, Kevin McKidd, Dexter Fletcher, Alison Steadman, Ron Cook, and Andy Serkis. Topsy-Turvy is a delightful yet engrossing film from Mike Leigh.
It’s January 1884 as W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) release their new opera Princess Ida to a lukewarm reception as Sullivan falls ill from kidney disease while Gilbert is dealing with writer’s block. Facing pressure to create a new piece for the Savoy, Sullivan goes on a holiday to France while Gilbert stays in England with his wife Kitty (Lesley Manville) who has been aware that having Princess Ida play during the hot British summer was a bad idea. After Sullivan’s return from France with mistress Fanny Ronalds (Eleanor David), he and Gilbert have no idea what to do as Sullivan refuses to repeat his own musical ideas while Gilbert has a hard time creating a new story.
With their producer Richard D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) deciding to revive their old play The Sorcerer as a way to make profit, Gilbert and Sullivan are unsure what to do as Sullivan refuses to repeat any ideas for a new libretto that Gilbert has written. Meanwhile, the actors who had worked in the Gilbert & Sullivan plays are becoming frustrated as some want a pay raise while dealing with their own personal issues. When Kitty convinces Gilbert to attend a Japanese exhibition of arts and crafts, Gilbert is suddenly inspired to write a new piece as it also inspires Sullivan to create The Mikado.
With all of the actors joining up for the project, complications arise as Gilbert wants an air of authenticity as he invites Japanese women to teach his actresses how to walk. Still, Gilbert and Sullivan are unsure about the opera itself where a decision about a song cut from the opera forces him to deal with the actors who felt very strongly about it. With opening night emerging, Gilbert and Sullivan wonder how the play will do as they also try to deal with its aftermath.
The film is about two men dealing with failure and the pressure to come up with something that would eventually be their best work. Yet, it’s also an in-depth look into the way art is made by two people who respect each other but at times, don’t really like each other. Sullivan is a guy that likes to have a good time with a mistress and enjoy a bit of decadence to escape his own kidney problems. Gilbert is the more anxiety-ridden as he wants to avoid dealing with his ailing mother while spending time with his wife. Yet, they’re both very creative personalities who really want to bring out the best opera out there to Victorian society as they’re also very stubborn artists.
Mike Leigh’s approach to the story deals with the world of creativity as well as the world of the late 1800s in British Victorian society where men wore suits and women wore big dresses with corsets inside. Leigh also explores the complex and often troubled relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan based on stories about the duo and the way they worked together. The story also allows Leigh to dwell into what the actors are thinking about their own performances in the play as well as their own personal lives. Yet, they all come together in the third act when the actors and the creative forces try to finish an opera they all believe could be great.
Since Leigh is known for never using a script and allowing his actors to improvise, it allows the film to have a tone that feels very loose through his direction. With rich compositions highlighting a lot on what goes on in and out of the stage as well what goes in the respective homes of Gilbert and Sullivan. Leigh crafts a film that is engaging into what goes in the world of creating art while having some amazing compositions such as high shots to see what middle-class people would see at a theater or what the actors are seeing. The overall work Leigh creates is sensational as he creates a truly funny yet mesmerizing film.
Cinematographer Dick Pope does an incredible job with the film‘s colorful photography from the way he sets the mood in the stage look for the differing plays to a more straightforward yet colorful look to many of the interiors settings in the film. Editor Robin Sales does an excellent job with the editing to create rhythmic cuts to capture the intensity of what goes on in the making of a stage as well as playing to the melody of some of the musical moments of the film. Production designer Eve Stewart, along with set decorator John Bush and art director Helen Scott, does a spectacular job with the set pieces created from the spacious living room of Gilbert to the more intimate bedroom of Sullivan plus the staging of the operas that is created in the film.
Costume designer Lindy Hemming does a magnificent job with the late 19th Century period costumes from the dresses look and feel to the costumes created for The Mikado opera. Hair & makeup designer Christine Blundell does a fabulous job with the way the hair looks to that 19th Century period for women as well as the wigs and makeup made for The Mikado. Sound recordist Tim Fraser and sound editor Peter Joly do stellar work with the sound from the way sound is made for some parts of the stage presentation to the intimacy that occurs during rehearsal. The film’s music is largely dominated by the works of Gilbert and Sullivan that is adapted by composer Carl Davis who uses pieces from other operas as score music to emphasize the drama and humor that includes the stage scene as it’s a highlight of the film.
The casting by Nina Gold is truly amazing for the large ensemble that is created for the film as all of the actors do their own singing for the film. Making appearances in the film, which includes a lot of Leigh regulars, are Ashley Jensen as a chorus member, Andy Serkis as an eccentric choreographer, Katrin Cartlidge as a friend that Sullivan entertains, Alison Steadman as a costume designer, Eve Pearce as Gilbert’s ailing mother, Naoko Mori as a Japanese waitress Gilbert meets at the exhibition, Dexter Fletcher as Sullivan’s butler, and Wendy Nottingham as Carte’s assistant Helen Lenoir. In standout supporting performances, there’s Vincent Franklin as the joyful Rutland Barrington and Martin Savage as the troubled yet gifted George Grossmith.
Dorothy Atkinson as the injured diva Jessie Bond, Eleanor David as Sullivan’s mistress Fanny Ronalds, and Shirley Henderson as the insecure yet talented Leonara Braham are all wonderful in their respective roles. Kevin McKidd is excellent as the demanding Duward Lely while Timothy Spall is superb as veteran lead Richard Temple who gets to play the title role in The Mikado. Ron Cook is terrific in a low-key performance as Gilbert and Sullivan’s producer Richard D’Oyly Carte while Lesley Manville is brilliant as Gilbert’s supportive wife Kitty.
Finally there’s the duo of Jim Broadbent and Alan Corduner in fantastic performances in the respective roles of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Broadbent brings a great sense of turmoil and anguish in Gilbert that is striving to create the best opera he can while Corduner is the more humorous of the two as the funnier Sullivan. Though Broadbent and Corduner don’t have a lot of scenes together, the two do have great rapport together as these two different personalities who are trying to create an opera they will be remembered for. It’s definitely some of the best work for both Broadbent and Corduner for the way they portray Gilbert and Sullivan.
Topsy-Turvy is a splendid yet witty film from Mike Leigh featuring an outstanding ensemble cast led by Jim Broadbent and Alan Corduner. The film is definitely one of Leigh’s finest films in terms of its ambition and the way he brings a unique interpretation to the world of late 19th Century Victorian society. Notably in how he explores the world of creativity at its most troubled as he creates a wonderful study on that world while making it entertaining with the use of the music and operas of Gilbert & Sullivan. In the end, Topsy-Turvy is a superb yet dazzling film from Mike Leigh.
Mike Leigh Films: (Bleak Moments) - (Hard Labour) - (The Permissive Society) - (Nuts in May) - (Abigail’s Party) - (Kiss of Death) - (Who’s Who) - (Grown-Ups) - (Home Sweet Home) - (Meantime) - (Four Days in July) - (High Hopes) - Life is Sweet - Naked - Secrets & Lies - Career Girls - All or Nothing - Vera Drake - Happy-Go-Lucky - Another Year - Mr. Turner
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