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  Topsy-Turvy Taking The Mikado
Year: 1999
Director: Mike Leigh
Stars: Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Lesley Manville, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall, Kevin McKidd, Eleanor David, Sam Kelly, Shirley Henderson, Nicholas Woodeson, Wendy Nottingham, Dorothy Atkinson, Alison Steadman, Martin Savage, Andy Serkis, Jonathan Aris
Genre: Comedy, Historical, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) are two of the most successful authors of musical entertainment the world has ever seen, and now, in 1884, with their latest hit production Princess Ida wowing them in the London theatre, it seems they will never put a foot wrong. But Gilbert reads a review in a newspaper that really gets under his skin, one calling the play and his work on its lyrics as "topsy-turvy", and his restless spirit wishes to get on and prove the critic wrong by creating a work justifying the idea of the Gilbert and Sullivan brand's genius. However, Sullivan has had enough of light opera, and wants to pen something more heavyweight...

This was the first of director Mike Leigh's forays into history, a trend he adopted in the latter half of his career with varying results, as far as the reactions to what appeared to be out of character for him went. But Topsy-Turvy, by and large, was welcomed as proof he could turn his hand to a variety of subjects and still come away with something well up to his own high standards, justifying his famously intense pre-production process and rehearsals - was it any wonder that this talent, with his love of precisely that, would make a story out of the preparation for a big show with all the heartache, laughter and sweat that would entail, not to mention the endless tinkering.

What was most pleasing about this was that Leigh and his cast, in doing their incredible, in-depth research which paid so many dividends on the screen, recognised that it could be very funny, and the language that sounded so affected to modern ears as the third millennium approached was able to convey a certain nobility while also rendering its speakers in varying degrees of silliness. Precisely the pretentions you would expect of a theatrical company of the old school, and wonderfully put across with such relish that you would be surprised nobody thought of doing it before considering how well it went in this instance. All that rehearsal created impeccably crafted performances.

As the part of history Leigh opted to focus on was the production of The Mikado from beginning to opening night, you did not need to be hugely well-versed in Gilbert and Sullivan to be aware they were making a massive hit, even if they were uncertain while they were working on it. This was not pin-sharp in its accuracy to the facts, there were liberties taken, but you would have to be an expert in the men's careers to know where the artistic license was being applied, and there was plenty here you could look up and see that oh, that really was happening around the time they were labouring over the Japanese-themed musical. Besides, it was the spirit of the piece that was important, and Leigh was faithful to both these men's legacies in a way that undoubtedly came across as a tribute to the showbusiness and thespians he loved.

The film was a kind of musical too, as it acknowledged The Mikado went very well indeed, therefore felt confident that it could drop in numbers from it even as the idea for the plot was being formed in Gilbert's mind. It was a striking decision that immersed us in the world of both the play and its manufacture, placing a living world of artistic endeavour before us and inviting us to laugh at the arrogance of some, and be moved by the need to be appreciated that everyone in the arts could relate to. Among one of the great casts of the nineteen-nineties, it would not be entirely fair to single out one performance in particular, but a few that catch the eye past the excellent Broadbent (gruff, conflicted, inspired) and Corduner (charming, ingratiating, yearning for his "serious" masterpiece) included Timothy Spall and Kevin McKidd as two of the leading men, Shirley Henderson as one of the three little maids, Lesley Manville as the supportive but personally thwarted Mrs Gilbert, and Andy Serkis as the weirdo choreographer. Knowing every tic and emotion the whole cast served up had been toiled over to amazing precision should have constricted it, but it didn't, Topsy-Turvy was like a fascinating window on the Victorian era's entertainments.

[The Criterion Collection release this title on Blu-ray with these features:

Director-approved digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Dick Pope, with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Audio commentary featuring director Mike Leigh
New video conversation between Leigh and musical director, Gary Yershon
Leigh's 1992 short film A Sense of History, written by and starring actor Jim Broadbent
Deleted scenes
Featurette from 1999 including interviews with Leigh and cast members
Theatrical trailer and TV spots
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Amy Taubin,]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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