Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

"It is the people who matter, not the frocks." | Photo: Criterion

Mike Leigh brings to Victorian London what he brought to King's Cross (High Hopes) and Enfield (Life Is Sweet): a respect for human endeavour and a sympathy with foot soldiers.

He has many qualities as a filmmaker, nor least a cutting wit and mastery of dialogue. His handling of actors is exemplary. The performances here, particularly from regulars Jim Broadbent and Timothy Spall, are a joy and a delight.

Copy picture

Gilbert and Sullivan operettas have become standards of Middle England, personifying a lightness of touch that takes the heavy out of duty when it comes to culture. Topsy-Turvy concentrates on the years between Princess Ida and The Mikado. Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner), recently knighted, talks of ending the partnership ("these trivial soufflés") and writing a proper opera. He says, only half in jest, "Working with Gilbert would kill anybody." Also, he suffers from a disobedient kidney.

The relationship between the two is neither cordial, nor antagonistic. They appear estranged, coming together for meetings with the impresario, Richard D'Oyley Carte (Ron Cook), at his new theatre, or to rehearse the players. On first nights, Sullivan basks in the glory, conducting the orchestra, loving the adulation, while W.S.Gilbert (Broadbent) flees into the night, hateful of the whole caboodle. "I don't know how to take success," he tells his wife. "It makes my eyes red."

Sullivan is a vain man, only too aware of his position in the musical establishment. Gilbert is full of contradiction, profoundly self-confident and yet dismissive of his talent, touchy about criticism, incapable of comprehending the sensibilities of lesser mortals, a perfectionist who is forever dissatisfied, behaving, some might say, like a bully, which would appall him, not entirely immune from the views of others, and yet devoid of charm or vanity, a genius in his own drawing room, nervous of human contact and simmering with irritation.

Leigh is not attempting a biopic. He involves the players and the life of the theatre, the business of putting on a show from itsy bitsy beginnings, through draft and redraft, alteration and disorientation, trial and error, incorporating emotional crises, financial panics, personal doubts and bitchy backchat to the scarifying moment of the public opening. It is these vignettes, what might be called character parts - with Leigh, all parts have character and are of equal value - that gives the film its strength. Corduner discovers in Sullivan an unctuous decency. His is a performance of nuance and subtlety, in which the actor masks the maestro's arrogance with a veneer of sweetness.

In an illustrious career, Broadbent has personified the serf-at-play, whether ancient or modern. Here, he discards his comic persona to create a Victorian man of purpose. Gilbert has a personality that could silence a riot and Broadbent goes deeper than caricature to illuminate it. This is acting of the highest calibre.

G&S produced their own work at a time before directors had been invented. As you might expect, their styles are completely different, Sullivan friendly and encouraging, Gilbert uncompromising and critical. There are several rehearsal scenes which, in any other film, would be considered too long and yet here, under Leigh's tutelage, fascinate and entertain.

Spall, as the oldest serving member of the company, is theatrical in a camp, arch way, hinting at a life of regret, with a mother in South London "who never sleeps" and a wife in some nameless suburb who probably talks to pastry. In a scene where Gilbert decides to cut his best song from The Mikado, Spall's response works on many levels - fury, despair, self-pity. Watching him suffer the spears and arrows of outrageous fortune is a lesson in the thespian craft.

Unlike Merchant Ivory, whose crinoline classics evoke a gentler, better dressed age, Leigh allows the 19th century to infuse, like a good leaf. It is the people who matter, not the frocks. And the show, my dear, must go on.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
Share this with others on...
Topsy-Turvy packshot
Loose biopic of Gilbert and Sullivan in the period leading up to the staging of The Mikado.
Amazon link

Director: Mike Leigh

Writer: Mike Leigh

Starring: Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Ron Cook, Sukie Smith, Wendy Nottingham, Kate Doherty

Year: 1999

Runtime: 159 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


Search database:

If you like this, try:

Mrs Henderson Presents
Mr. Turner