Topsy-turvy

on December 15, 1999 by Wade Major
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   Easily the most ambitious effort of Mike Leigh's lengthy and prestigious career, "Topsy-Turvy" is something of a frustrating success--a period drama that brings out the best and the worst in the English director's avant-garde, blue collar sensibilities. Ultimately, audiences are likely to feel both taxed and enriched for having endured what might have worked marvelously as a tighter, shorter picture.
   The contentious yet fruitful relationship between Britain's famed 19th century masters of light opera, Gilbert and Sullivan, forms the dramatic core of "Topsy-Turvy," which joins the duo in the early 1880s after such hits as "The Pirates of Penzance" had already rocketed them to the pinnacle of success. But success has spoiled them both, agitating an already uneasy relationship to the point of fracture. Sullivan (Allan Corduner) blames Gilbert's incessant preoccupation with magical fables of "topsy-turvydom" for stifling his musical creativity, while Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) resents having been forced to subjugate his words and stories to Sullivan's sprightly, popular music. Faced with a seemingly irresolvable creative impasse, the pair appear destined to never work together again.
   But when Gilbert attends a traveling exhibition of Japanese art, craft and performance, he experiences his own kind of topsy-turvy, inspiring him to embrace an entirely new kind of light opera which, in short order, becomes their greatest and most enduring work, "The Mikado."
   In working up to Gilbert's epiphany, Leigh mostly adheres to traditional English biopic conventions, laying out his characters and their respective conflicts in as straightforward a manner as possible. But as the film shifts to the arduous process of planning and staging the complexities of "The Mikado," Leigh's penchant for improvisational flabbiness sets in, stretching a seemingly endless series of rehearsal scenes to unimaginable lengths. Thankfully, the stretch isn't entirely uninteresting, sustained by sporadic forays into the backstage dramas of the respective actors, with Leigh's reliable "Secrets and Lies" star Timothy Spall simply superb as lead baritone Richard Temple. Indeed, it is all but impossible to fault the film's performances, with Corduner and Broadbent both in peak form, and supporting actors uniformly outstanding.
   Likewise, the film's recreation of 1880s London is compellingly wrought, with excellent contributions from cinematographer Dick Pope, production designer Eve Stewart, costume designer Lindy Hemming and composer Carl Davis (adapting Sullivan‚s original music). The film's greatest joys, however, are its many musical numbers, splendidly staged by musical director Gary Yershon.
   Unfortunately, at a staggeringly overlong 160 minutes, "Topsy-Turvy" overstays its welcome by at least 40 minutes, never fully able to reconcile Leigh's determination to indulge his actors with the story's need to be told briskly and concisely. And while such faults don't necessarily spell boxoffice doom, neither will they win the critical adulation needed to put Leigh's career back into "Secrets and Lies" territory. Starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Ron Cook and Wendy Nottingham. Directed and written by Mike Leigh. Produced by Simon Channing-Williams. A USA Films release. Period Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 160 min
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