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With: Allan Corduner, Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall, Wendy Nottingham, Kevin McKidd, Martin Savage, Shirley Henderson, Alison Steadman
Written by: Mike Leigh
Directed by: Mike Leigh
MPAA Rating: R for a scene of risque nudity
Running Time: 160
Date: 09/03/1999

Topsy-Turvy (1999)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Stage Broach

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Mike Leigh is one of Great Britain's finest directors, ranking with Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell. His films High Hopes (1988), Life Is Sweet (1991), Naked (1993), and Secrets & Lies (1996) are all close to perfection in their rhythms, performances, and atmosphere. His new film Topsy-Turvy, which tells the (semi) true story of Gilbert and Sullivan's production of The Mikado, seems to be pleasing critics both great and small all over the U.S. But I can't help but think that it's a small misstep in Leigh's otherwise great career. It's a critic's movie that audiences may find baffling.

Topsy-Turvy runs about two hours and forty minutes. That's fine. My pick for the best picture of 1999, Eyes Wide Shut, runs about the same. But Topsy-Turvy is both too long and too short. It has individual scenes that are stunning, such as one hilarious scene that shows Gilbert (played by the wonderful Jim Broadbent) at the dentist's office. The dentist waits until Gilbert is in the chair with his mouth full before he says, "your last opera was a bit long, wasn't it?" Sometimes, though, there is a thread of storyline that is given special attention and then left hanging. For example, one character is shown to have a drug problem. We expect this to come up later and sabotage the play, but it never does. Another character drinks and is having problems with a Japanese sword -- he comes too close to an actor's face during the performance. But, that too goes nowhere.

The production is so well crafted and controlled that I suspect critics are forgiving Leigh a great deal in these small missteps. But the more the movie went on, the more I found myself unable to get a grasp of it. It feels like there are enormous empty gaps between scenes, as if the projectionist accidentally skipped a reel. The ending in particular is liable to leave many people feeling confused.

Leigh gives just enough time to The Mikado to give us an idea of what the play is about. My own knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan is limited to a single production of H.M.S. Pinafore that I saw a great number of years ago. And the movie doesn't offer much help to amateurs like me. (This is the flip-side of something like Man on the Moon, which is geared toward first-timers with a disregard for experts.)

Yet, as I said, there are individual scenes that, when looked at by themselves, are knockouts. Gilbert rehearsing his actors through a scene and getting them to repeat lines over and over, changing them as he goes, is as close to a real rehearsal as I've ever seen on film. My own (short-lived) theater days swept back over me in a huge rush while watching this. It's all there; the camaraderie, the little love affairs, the soap operas, the egos, the bitter disappointments, the small triumphs. Despite the overall faults, it's these moments that make Topsy-Turvy worth the price of a ticket.

Miramax's DVD went out of print long ago, and so the Criterion Collection has stepped in to release a new 2011 DVD and Blu-Ray. It includes Mike Leigh's 1999 commentary track, and a 1999 featurette. There's a new interview between Leigh and musical director Gary Yershon, Leigh's short film A Sense of History (1992), deleted scenes, and trailers. The excellent critic Amy Taubin provides liner notes.

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