If the movie is long, it needs to be in order to create the feel of the life of a Gilbert and Sullivan production.
If you think two hours and forty minutes of Gilbert and Sullivan is not your cup of tea, think again. The marvelously unpredictable British director, Mike Leigh, who usually deals with contemporary Londoners caught in emotional turmoil (Secrets and Lies, Career Girls), has now made Topsy-Turvy, a glorious period tale with an extraordinary cast and a real story to tell.
By filling the late nineenth-century void between Grand Opera and burlesque with their wildly popular comic operas, Gilbert and Sullivan also filled the coffers of the Savoy Theater under the watchful eye of impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte (Ron Cook).
Mike Leigh picks up their story as the critics begin to talk about repetition in their work. The partners are in a lull. Librettist William Schwenck Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) has come up with a new comedy to fulfill their contract at the Savoy, but composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is sick of both his partner and their music. He wants to write a serious opera. "It is merely low burlesque in a small theater on the banks of the Thames," he says of their collaboration.
When Gilbert's wife, Kitty (Lesley Manville), drags her husband to a Japanese exhibition, the idea for "The Mikado" jumps into his head. Mr. Sullivan is delighted by this departure from his partner's usual "topsy-turvy" stories. Much of this movie is the story of "The Mikado," from its birth in Gilbert's imagination to its opening night performance.
After a wonderful opening scene of white-gloved ushers inspecting each blue velvet seat for invisible dust, we join Gilbert and Sullivan in the act of lifting themselves out of their doldrums. While director Leigh reveals their decline, he introduces the wives, husbands, lovers, and singers who make up this company. He then shows Gilbert in the throes of inspiration and writing, followed by rehearsals that are wonderfully staged and lifted high by the extraordinary British wit that informs the instructions from Gilbert to his cast.
Look for an excellent performance by Timothy Spall as leading man Richard Temple, and from Eleanor David as Sullivan's American mistress, Fanny Ronalds. It takes a while to sort the characters, but Leigh, as always, makes them memorable with the details of their afflictions and eccentricities. If the movie is long, it needs to be in order to create the feel of the life of a Gilbert and Sullivan production.
Jim Broadbent's Gilbert stunningly carries the film during its second half. Accustomed by now to thinking of him as the more conservative, less inspired, of the two partners, we now see the transformation that can occur when an artist finds his material. Alan Corduner makes a terrific character of Sullivan, a man who pursues his own pleasures with style and is driven by a yearning to compose important music.
Mike Leigh has said, "I am absolutely in love with shooting film and discovering the texture of the place and the people." The texture of Topsy-Turvy is rich with Mr. Leigh's passion.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 500
Studio : USA Films
Rating : NR
Running time : 2h40m
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