Librettist Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) has become so comfortable churning out operattas in his world of “topsy-turvydom”, that frustrated composer Sullivan (Allan Corduner) breaks off their collaboration. If Gilbert ever accepted the criticism levelled at the sameness of his writing, it’s not apparent from Mike Leigh’s screenplay for Topsy-Turvy.Although set in his familiar London, it’s Leigh’s first non-contemporary film, and he reminds us endlessly. Titles announce the year last century, and the film grinds to a halt for an irrelevant discussion of the politics of the day, or to display memorabilia from the period - a newly invented telephone, the ball-point pen.
Topsy-Turvy is about two sides of the creative process: writing and performing. The first half follows the rift between Gilbert and Sullivan: Sullivan’s sojourn in France to begin work on a serious opera (which a smug closing title informs us could never better his work with Gilbert); Gilbert’s visit to a Japanese exhibition in London which inspires The Mikado; Sullivan’s apparent enthusiasm for it on his return, and the renewal of their professional relationship. The second half is taken up with the workings of the D’Oyly Carte company as they rehearse The Mikado in anticipation of opening night.
Unfortunately, there isn’t sufficient connection between the two halves. On the evidence here, The Mikado (despite its exotic pseudo-Japanese setting) wasn’t much different to the other topsy-turvy operettas, so it’s hard to fathom why Sullivan acquiesces so easily. Leigh’s idea of fleshing out the performers of the company is to allot each a recognisable flaw - alcoholism, drug addiction, vanity. Thus he transforms unlikeable one dimensional characters into unlikeable two dimensional characters; he doesn’t make them human. The stuffy, pompous Gilbert, who won’t even soften for his young wife (Lesley Manville) is hard to bear, and the scenes with his various family members are too brief and disjointed to flesh out his character.A couple of the rehearsal scenes demonstrate Leigh’s trademark skill with actors and improvisation, and the development of the “Three Little Maids” song in rehearsal was fascinating. But too often, Leigh overindulges in the historical minutiae. Topsy-Turvy
is all in the details; which wouldn’t be so bad if the rest of the movie wasn’t missing.