It is not the film you think it may be – hunt it out, and spend three enjoyable hours getting away from it all.
I have long been a huge admirer of Mike Leigh’s films – the brilliant, award-winning English director who eschews the Hollywood system and refuses to make films that will uplift you or tells stories with conventional happy (or sad) endings.
He makes films that show us ‘slices of life’ in England, mainly working and middle-class people – sometimes good people – often bad – but always with gritty reality. He never holds back, and occasionally he makes us feel very uncomfortable as he peels away the layers of quasi-polite behaviour and we see the real people underneath.
He shows us the love, the hate, the greed, the jealousies, the selfishness, the egoism, the misery, the depression, the generosity, the kindness, the cruelty that lies beneath the surface in our so-called civilised society.
Leigh’s films never have scripts. This is one of the reasons he tends to use the same ensemble of actors, film after film. The first part of Leigh’s filmmaking process is to get the actors together for several weeks prior to shooting. He gives them the outline of the ‘story’ and their characters and they improvise the scenes together until he is satisfied. Leigh and his actors have totally perfected this method, and it was only relatively recently that I discovered that all the dialogue was improvised, as so convincing is the end result.
Topsy-Turvy, his 1999 masterpiece, is very different to many of his films. For starters, it contains a lot of wonderful, unabashed humour. It has none of the depressing realism of “Vera Drake”, a story of a 1950’s back-street abortionist, or the depressing story of a family living in a council flat, (“All or Nothing”), or the revelations of what lies under the surface in a middle-class family over the period of one year, (“Another Year”), or even “Happy-Go-Lucky“, an upbeat, funny film that ultimately turns out not to be not quite so happy.
You don’t have to be a lover of opera or Gilbert and Sullivan fan to enjoy this film, but you do have to love music, because music and live theatre is at the core of this enjoyable romp through the life and times of Victorian theatre; in particular, what lay behind the scenes at the Doyle Carte opera company, who had exclusive rights to these ever-popular and amusing operettas.
We join the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan when they are already very rich and successful. Sullivan – who pens the music – has become concerned that they are starting to repeat themselves, and refuses to write the score for Gilbert’s latest libretto, even though he is contracted so to do.
Gilbert, brilliantly played by Jim Broadbent, is a clever man who writes very funny librettos, yet in real life he is a somewhat controlling person, full of heavy sarcasm and with a fragile ego. He ris furious with the critics who dared to criticise his latest offering. All in all, he is not a very nice person.
By contrast, Sullivan, who is equally well played by Alan Corduner, is a fun-loving, amiable hedonist, who dreams of writing a great grand opera.
The relationship between the two is very stormy, especially when Sullivan refuses to fulfil his contractual obligations. But after a visit to a Japanese cultural exhibition in London, Gilbert came up with the idea of The Mikado, arguably G&S’ finest operetta. He uses Japanese characters to poke fun at the Victorian establishment and this tour de force becomes an outstanding success.
At just under three hours, Topsy-Turvy is a very long film, but it needs to be that long so that we can enjoy the many renderings of G &S’s ‘songs’ and also to give the ensemble cast the time to develop their roles and become real believable characters.
The film is a riot of fun and we get great insights into how the Victorian theatre functioned. We see the lives, loves and vices of the people who inhabited it, and some wonderfully amusing vignettes, such as rehearsals where the demanding Gilbert directs the hardworking and exhausted performers while Sullivan conducts. We also get glimpses of the other side of Victorian London – its street women and its beggars.
There are many excellent cameo performances by members of the ensemble cast. Pride of place goes to Timothy Spall as the comedy Tenor, but there really are no bad performances.
The film is also full of colour and wonderful Victorian costumes. The staging of the performances are so cleverly done, you think you are part of the audience.
Topsy-Turvy garnered two Oscars, and it deserved more – but we all know how difficult it is for a Mike Leigh film to break through to the Hollywood establishment.
My only tiny gripe is that as great as Broadbent was, there were a few times when he reminded me of his character, Harold Zidler, in Moulin Rouge. But that’s no great sin as Moulin Rouge was also a great flick.
Trust me, Topsy-Turvy is not the film you think it may be – hunt it out and spend three enjoyable hours getting away from it all.
Five out of Five Mobi-Stars for this wonderfully idiosyncratic, fun-filled movie.