Topsy-Turvy Movie Review

One of my earliest childhood remembrances was watching a performance of H.M.S. Pinafore. I thought it was really neat. The costumes and music were amazing and even though I couldn't understand all of what was going on, I was fascinated by how all of these people worked together.

Now 20 years later, while watching another Gilbert and Sullivan performance (of sorts) I am still thinking the same things.

Topsy Turvy is the story about the two collaborators who during the late 19th century created such musical masterpieces as H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado and many others.

William Schwenck Gilbert (Played by Jim Broadbent) is the librettist, writing the words. Arthur Sullivan (played by Allan Corduner) is the composer, writing the music. Gilbert is the very model of a 19th-Century British gentleman, an overly proper married man certain that he knows best - which he often does. Sullivan lives a freer life, almost libertine by comparison; but there is a seriousness of purpose in him.

For nearly a decade, Gilbert and Sullivan's collaborations have delighted the English people. Their popular comic operas have recouped handsomely for the successful Savoy Theatre; impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte (played by Ron Cook) himself is a stabilizing influence, gently but firmly overseeing the two men.

But, in 1884, as a London heat wave cuts into the theater trade, their latest work, Princess Ida receives only lukewarm press. Sullivan wants to quit and compose more serious music, but the two are contractually obligated to create a new work for Carte. Sullivan rejects Gilbert's next idea as "topsy-turvy" and unbelievable, and although Gilbert tries to accommodate him, they cannot agree. Mired at a creative impasse, Gilbert and Sullivan can barely converse.

Then, Gilbert's wife, Lucy "Kitty": Gilbert (Lesley Manville), drags him along to a Japanese exhibition. Exposure to the very different culture sparks inspiration in Gilbert. He rebounds, conceiving The Mikado. The concept encourages Sullivan, and the production comes together, which is when the truly hard work begins.

Written and Directed by Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Life is Sweet) the film is visually impressive and amazingly well performed. However, the pace of the movie is leisurely at best, which unfortunately makes for an ass-numbing collection of costumes, characters and sub-plots. There are so many characters and background stories introduced through the film that you almost need a playbill just to keep up with everything. What's worse, is that after spending so much time working through all of the developing plots, all the stories seems to get wrapped up at a blinding pace towards the last 30 minutes of the film.

Fans of Gilbert and Sullivan's work will no-doubt delight in the fantastic musical numbers (some performed in their operatic entirety), but will they want to see all of the this combined with the backstage bickering and headaches that it took to accomplish such memorable pieces?

Overall the movie looks good, the costumes are beautiful and its fascinating to watch all the people working together, but when spread out over the 160 minutes of running length, it just makes for a long, drawn-out film appealing primarily to most viewers' mothers.

My opinion: a good rental for a rainy day. Indeed: Extra DVD features include a featurette, various trailers, still photos, and cast and crew bios.

Gilbert, meet Sullivan.


Topsy-Turvy Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, 1999


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