Sunday 22 March 2020

20 Years On: Topsy-Turvy (dir. Mike Leigh, 1999)

"Laughter. Tears. Curtain." What seemed at the time to be the unlikeliest of Mike Leigh projects - a lavish costume drama about Gilbert and Sullivan's creation of The Mikado - resulted in one of the director's most enduring masterpieces.Topsy-Turvy was not, in fact, Leigh's first period piece (that was his 1993 play, It's A Great Big Shame!) but it remains one of his finest, anticipating the broad yet intimate canvases of Vera Drake (2004), Mr. Turner (2014) and Peterloo (2018) - detailed, vivid explorations of earlier English epochs that put the shallow, sensitivity-free likes of The Favourite (2018) to shame. Funny, moving and with fabulous musical interludes, Topsy-Turvy is an immersive, deeply textured portrait - Dickensian in its scope and spirit - that also offers something of a meta commentary on the pleasures and challenges of collaborative creative processes. 

Few films, indeed, have given such a detailed sense of the "coming together" of a theatrical production, which Leigh traces from inspiration - Gilbert attending the Japanese exhibition at Humphrey's Hall - through financial practicalities, casting and costuming to performance, all the while paying beady attention to the wider social contexts of the time. Infused with the director's unsentimental affection for English eccentricity, and benefitting from his fantastic ear for period dialogue, Topsy-Turvy boasts a glorious cast of Leigh regulars (Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Timothy Spall, Alison Steadman, Sam Kelly) and those who would subsequently become so (Dorothy Atkinson, Martin Savage), all of whom rise to the challenge of creating a diverse range of idiosyncratic Victorian archetypes. 

At the centre, of course, is Leigh's concern with contrasting characters and their relationships, with Allan Corduner's twinkly, charismatic Sullivan set against Broadbent's trickier, more mordant Gilbert, and the colourful, escapist world of the operetta juxtaposed with the difficulties and disappointments of life off-stage. As Manville, playing Gilbert's good-natured, perennially unappreciated wife, Lucy, muses in a superb late scene that reveals the sadness at the core of the couple's marriage: "Wouldn't it be wondrous if perfectly commonplace people gave each other a round of applause at the end of the day?" For sure, Leigh's endlessly rewatchable film merits the most effusive of ovations. 

Topsy-Turvy was released in the UK on 18 February 2000.

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