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William Schwenck Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) is the librettist; Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is the composer. Their popular comic operas have recouped handsomely for the successful Savoy Theatre; Gilbert and Sullivan are under contract to impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) to create a new work. But Sullivan wants to quit and compose more serious music, rejecting Gilbert’s next idea as just another visit to 'topsy-turvydom'. Gilbert is downcast, until newly inspired when his wife Lucy (Lesley Manville) drags him along to a Japanese exhibition, and The Mikado is conceived. Sullivan is similarly inspired and the production begins, with leading actor Richard Temple (Timothy Spall). But the colour and movement on-stage barely matches the off-stage lives of the entire company….

Review by Louise Keller:
Mike Leigh's departure from heartfelt gritty films to the upside-down world of Topsy-Turvy, an illuminating bio-pic about Gilbert and Sullivan, is a splendid one. A treat to look at with gorgeous production design and cinematography, Leigh peers into the lives of acerbic, austere librettist Willie Gilbert and pleasure-seeking composer Sir Arthur Sullivan exemplifying not only their artistic differences, but their very essence as human beings. How extraordinary that such wonderful music and entertainment was born of men who were opposites in every way. Gilbert's dogmatic, stubborn perfectionist with no communication skills contrasts Sullivan's lovable free spirit whose passions ventured beyond his music to those of the flesh. Jim Broadbent is remarkable: he is a gruff, stubborn bear with a sore head that masks acute vulnerability. Allan Corduner delights - his conducting scenes are marvellous. Characters are maximised by Leigh's contextualising them into their rich circumstances. All the cast is terrific – Lesley Manville memorable as Lucy, Gilbert's staunch, loyal, tragic wife. We jump heart first into the tumultuous lives of these lords of the Operetta, whose private lives were far removed from their light, flippant, frothy onstage productions. We experience the insecurities, the clashes, the tantrums, backstage jitters and are there, not only for the performance, but at rehearsals, and we slide down the artistic slippery dip for the lows after the highs. Needless to say, music plays a big part, and the orchestra is glorious. Although the 160 minutes length is undeniably too long, we are engaged throughout in a delightful interlude. From the humour of the giggling Three Little Maids rehearsal scene to the pathos of artistic insecurity, Topsy-Turvy hits the emotional artistic bullseye – its colour will enrich, its poignancy will make your cry.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
All that Louise says is also true for me; the film delivers on all fronts: characterisation, story, image, music, emotion and intellect. Perhaps Leigh's greatest indulgence is also the film's strength - and the reason for its length: Leigh has insisted that if he is to tell the story of these two men, a writer and a composer, he was going to show us their work in more than skimpy fashion. It wasn't enough for Leigh that we catch glimpses of their output: he wants us to properly engage with some of it. Especially The Mikado, a work that came out like toothpaste squeezed from a tormented tube, amidst the angst of a personality clash that resembles a marriage breakdown after 24 years. Allan Corduner's acting skills are matched by his piano playing - no sleight of hand is visible, and there are moments when this is crucial for effective cinema. His lusty nature, totally unexpected by his presence, is just one of the many insights Leigh offers us as he scans the skyline of Gilbert and Sullivan's universe. There is a wealth of detail in the film - not only about the principals including Richard D'Oyly Carte, but others in the D'Oyly Carte company - which rounds out our view of several individuals in that world, and also suggests a staggering fascination on Leigh's part for the entire context within which these two men lived and worked. The result is rich, engaging, entertaining, moving and funny. Brilliant.

Review by Jake Wilson:
A wonderful film, with a premise so quaint it seems positively audacious. I mean, who else would be interested in this stodgy pair of Victorian humorists, remembered (if at all) for their hummable tunes and cosy Victorian whimsy? One of Mike Leigh's great qualities is patience - the patience to sit down and imagine, doggedly and literal-mindedly, what Gilbert and Sullivan might have been like; and then to present their world to us in great detail, letting long dialogue scenes, rehearsals and musical numbers play out uninterrupted in quasi-documentary style. At the same time his method is highly economical - he uses single scenes as telescoped versions of whole parallel narratives, opening up the film in many directions at once. Because of this dispersed structure, it's hard to say briefly what Topsy-Turvy is about, but close to its centre is the idea of art as 'contrivance': there may be nothing very Japanese about the Mikado, but its use of fanciful costumes, heavy makeup and pantomime makes it every bit as distanced, externalised and 'exotic' as Kabuki theatre. Topsy-Turvy is a contrivance too, though a meticulously researched one. While Gilbert (an archetypal Brit) uses whimsy for emotional self-protection, Leigh himself revels in the theatrical qualities of British acting: he loves the effect of awkwardness lurking behind formal stiffness, and the campy clowning of Richard Temple (Timothy Spall), and men wearing Victorian mutton-chop whiskers that always look glued on. This would make a spectacular double-bill with Todd Haynes' similarly meticulous Velvet Goldmine, which imagines a later stage in the history of British musical artifice: both films demonstrate that truth and illusion are two sides of the same coin, and hence that the most apparently silly, false and dated artforms can sometimes pierce the heart.

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See Jimmy Thomson's interview with MIKE LEIGH



CAST: Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Lesley Manville, Eleanor David, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall, Kevin McKidd, Martin Savage, Shirley Henderson

PRODUCER: Simon Channing-Williams

DIRECTOR: Mike Leigh

SCRIPT: Mike Leigh


EDITOR: Robin Sales

MUSIC: Carl Davis (Additional music by Arthur Sullivan)


RUNNING TIME: 160 minutes



VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Universal Pictures Video

VIDEO RELEASE: November 23, 2000 (rental); March 12, 2003 (retail)

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