Topsy-Turvy (1999)

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Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Directed by: Mike Leigh

Starring: Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Timothy Spall, Lesley Mansville

Rated: R for a Scene of Risque Nudity

Running Time: 2 h 34 m

TMM Score: 4.5 stars out of 5

STRENGTHS: Mise-En-Scene, Direction, Acting, Production Design, Characters

WEAKNESSES: Length, Cultural Appropriation (?)


The two leaders of a Victorian era theatre troupe struggle to come up with any good new material, straining their relationship, until inspiration for something new strikes.


My Thoughts

Bravo! Bravo, indeed!


This film is a colorful barrage of imagery on your eyes. From the moment this film begins to the moment it ends, there are wondrous worlds put on stage in brilliantly designed sets and costumes and extravagant musical numbers. This is a movie that wraps you up in the delightful world of theatre until you almost don’t want to leave. You get to know the actors, from the egotistical to the meek, the designers, and the things that go wrong, and most importantly, you get to know Gilbert and Sullivan, from their great successes to their glaring personality flaws. This film succeeds in capturing the essence of the world of theatre, while also bringing to life the figures in history that helped revolutionized the modern musical with their classics like The Pirates of Penzance, and of course, The Mikado, which this film primarily focuses on.


"Laughter, tears, curtain."

Easily the best part of this film is the mise-en-scene; that is, the look and feel of the film, the arrangements of the sets and costumes, color choices, etc. This film is alive with color and vibrant energy, and a lot of that, if not all of it, has to do with the sets and scenery. Many of the sets on this film are elaborate and extravagantly decorated with little details and flourishes, and the sets range from Japanese themed to Victorian England. The care with which these costumes must’ve been conceived and designed is mind-boggling. The kimonos the girls wear, the fans they carry, the hairpieces and weaponry are all rather incredible. But it’s not just the performers on stage that wear elaborate costumes; the film takes place in the 1890s, and everyone in this film, from the lead actor on stage to the random audience member sitting six rows behind Sullivan is wearing something authentic looking. There are hundreds of extras in these scenes, and all of them look amazing.


Beyond that though, the characters are pretty incredible too. We see insights in lots of the character’s lives throughout the movie. A lot of the tension and turmoil comes from rehearsals; characters working together, forgetting lines, riffing about different cast members. The characters in this movie bring to life the world behind the screen, and most interesting of course are Gilbert and Sullivan themselves. Neither character is painted as remarkably likeable or wonderful. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent, Moulin Rouge!) is shown to be a rather cold-hearted man that takes criticism poorly. He is the writer for the duo; he pens the lines before Sullivan (Allan Corduner, The Merchant of Venice) scribes the music. Gilbert struggles with coming up with new ideas, and Sullivan grows sick of it. Sullivan brings up the consistent use of magical items throughout their last several plays, and says that the plot device has grown tiresome. Gilbert struggles to see what the issue is, and almost stubbornly refuses to change his ways, until finally, new inspiration strikes. When Gilbert is not creating, he seems childlike and irritable. He seems distant from almost everyone, especially his wife, who continuously gives him hints that she’d like to have a child. Gilbert’s coldness to his wife and darn near everyone else is juxtaposed by Sullivan’s warmness towards everyone, including his mistress. While Gilbert retreats into himself, Sullivan indulges in all sorts of pleasures (including morphine). He even casually discusses his mistress getting an abortion, which comes right after a scene where Gilbert’s wife tries to convince him to try for a child. Their lives were not perfect, and Mike Leigh tries to show the two properly, as he believes they were.

With the smaller characters in the film, Leigh really captures the culture of theater. Everything from the smaller parts looking up to leading parts, the familial familiarity of the cast and crew, the egotistical clashes between some actors, the disagreement between actors and directors, the process of rehearsing both music and lines, rewrites, rewrites, rewrites, and finally, the performance. We’re shown this play from its conception to the finale, and it’s amazing to see it come together in front of your eyes. Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner) is quite notable as one of the lead actors in the play (he plays the emperor of Japan).

The only issue I really had with this film was its length. This is truly a really great film, but it is quite long. I felt myself making comparisons to Amadeus, as far as scope and extravagance, though I still prefer Amadeus to this. There are some scenes and sequences that seem to drag, particularly in the first act, before Gilbert and Sullivan start their work on ‘The Mikado.’ The Mikado doesn’t even come up until more than an hour into the film. That’s fine; it takes the first hour to build the world of their theater, and establish the characters living in it, but it does take a while to get going. Another thing I want to mention, particularly in our increasingly sensitive age, is that the film revolves around the production of a play where every character is a Japanese character played by a Caucasian person. This is sort of cultural appropriation. I say ‘sort of’ only because this is a historical portrayal of something that actually happened. In the 1890s, I doubt theater troupes in London would’ve hired actual Japanese people to play the parts. Instead, they dressed up Caucasian actors. Something like that might, in today’s culture, by considered akin to blackface. This movie is a lot of fun, but for someone who is incredibly sensitive to things like that, just know this movie showcases it.


Other than a few lengthy scenes this movie is incredibly entertaining. It’s funny and musically captivating, and above all it’s a spectacle to behold. I absolutely recommend this film, if you’ve got two and a half hours to spare. If you’re really into theatre or Victorian England, I can almost guarantee this movie will entrance you.


Review Written By:

Seth Steele