Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Topsy Turvey

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Topsy-Turvy

6/10

UK 1999, dir. Mike Leigh, stars Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner

Topsy-Turvy is a tiresome classic. Classic, in that its originality and quality will ensure that it will be watched and admired for many years to come. Tiresome, because it feels every minute of its three hours, and because we’re never allowed to forget the enormous pains to which everybody has gone to get everything just right.

The film tells the story of how Gilbert and Sullivan wrote The Mikado, and how they carried on their normal daily lives, and how they got on (or not) with their families and colleagues, and what Victorian England was actually like to live in, and a lot more besides, and it does it all extremely well. But it’s all rather too much of a good thing, and it’s definitely too much of one thing in particular, namely The Mikado itself, which we get large chunks of in the second half of the film. There’s much to admire about Leigh’s staging of the original production, but we get the point pretty early on, and although you can see what Leigh is getting at – he shows us the specifics of G+S’s art, intercut with the chaos that went into its creation – that doesn’t make the three hours go by any faster.

Leigh has never been a particularly cinematic film-maker, and Topsy-Turvy is no exception. There are hardly any scenes set outdoors, there are very few long shots, and a distinct lack of what might be called directorial flourishes. None of this matters, however, with such a terrific script in the hands of a really remarkable cast. I can’t remember a film which had so many fine performances, from Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner all the way down – this ensemble acting of the finest order. Even so, there are two standouts. Shirley Henderson is a delight as G+S’s principal female singer, her purring kittenishness gradually blurring around the edges into precarious alcoholism. But it’s Martin Savage who steals the show as future novelist George Grossmith, his sharply angular face, body and voice seemingly built for the express purpose of conveying the archest nuances of operetta.

The rehearsal scene in which Savage’s accent wanders into Cockney, to the mounting anger of Broadbent, is as funny as anything in this director’s previous output, especially as Broadbent’s insistence on his performers’ sticking rigidly to his script is clearly intended as an ironic contrast to the Leigh’s famed improvisation methods. Another excellent scene sketches the deftness of Leigh’s approach – it starts off comic, with Broadbent’s father paying an unexpected visit and complaining about the dangers of that lethal innovation, the electric doorbell. But the father’s eccentricity shades rapidly into the ravings of senile dementia – disturbing the audience as well as Broadbent’s tormented, self-doubting Gilbert.

Full marks to Mike Leigh for trying something different. There have been backstage epics before, but none quite like this, and you only have to look at Tim Robbins’ superficially similar (though 30s-set) Cradle Will Rock to see how easy it is to get it wrong. Many people will undoubtedly love Topsy-Turvy and I can see how they could. But once was enough for me.

by Neil Young