Topsy Turvy is a delightful film which portrays the creative duo of Gilbert and Sullivan during their collaboration of The Mikado. It deservedly won Oscars for Best Costume Design and Best Makeup by bringing the world of theater in the late 19th Century to life. The movie starts out in the mid 1880s, during a time in which Gilbert and Sullivan are having difficulty coming up with new and innovative musical ideas. They are several years removed from some of their more critically acclaimed productions such as H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance, and are at a point where it seems they could be moving in different directions artistically. That is when William Gilbert, played by Jim Broadbent, attends a presentation of Japanese culture and is inspired to write the script which would be known as The Mikado. This original idea inspires his partner Arthur Sullivan, portrayed by Allan Corduner, to write one of his most enjoyable musical scores, and one of the duo’s most entertaining and well known works is born.
The relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan is fascinating. Gilbert was a grumpy man who was so negative he could not even attend his own musicals because he felt they were no good, and would be panned by critics, whereas Sullivan was a jolly man who always seemed to have a smile on his face, a positive attitude, and a good word for anyone he came across. This contrast in personalities is partly what makes Topsy Turvy such a fun movie. The extremes of both men are so absurd it can’t help but make us chuckle when we see them on display throughout the picture. Despite their different outlooks, however, the quality of Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaborative works cannot be doubted.
While the relationship and collaboration of Gilbert and Sullivan is interesting, this is only part of what makes Topsy Turvy such an excellent film. Not only does it follow Gilbert and Sullivan through the creative process, it also takes us into their personal lives and the lives of the actors and actresses who performed at their theater company. Mike Leigh, who wrote and directed, takes us backstage, into the dressing rooms, and even away from the theater to see and hear the characters as human beings, having conversations about everyday things which affect their lives. This brings such depth to the characters that when we see the actors on stage, and Gilbert and Sullivan in their professional lives, we see them in a whole new way. It really is an amazing thing which most movies and scripts don’t dare to tackle, and which is why Leigh’s screenplay was also nominated for an Oscar. Think of the scenes of dialogue in Pulp Fiction which have gangsters talking about foot massages on the way to a hit, or whether or not pigs are filthy animals in a diner. In Topsy Turvy the characters talk about the latest news on the war front, their desire for a raise, and whether or not they will ever get another date. By seeing the characters having conversations you and I might have on the way to the office or when we’re out to eat somewhere, we can relate to them as people and we see them in a different light. Like Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, Mike Leigh does this in his script and brings an element of depth to Topsy Turvy few other films can match.
Then there’s the music. If you’re a music lover you can’t help but enjoy the scenes featuring music and performances from The Mikado, and you will certainly enjoy the scenes where the actors are rehearsing and bringing the piece into a finished product. I would highly recommend Topsy Turvy as a film with great music, elaborate and colorful visuals, and a fascinating true story. But most of all, watch this film if you want to experience excellence in script writing.
Rated R – 161 Minutes