directed by Mike Leigh
(Goldwyn, 1999)

Great partners in art don't have to be particularly wonderful people, nor do they even, at times, have to like each other. Just ask Sonny and Cher.

But back in 1880s London, when operetta composers Gilbert and Sullivan were at the peak of their professional fame, they had pretty much reached the end of their ropes with each other. Sullivan yearned to attempt a "great opera"; Gilbert was floundering around for his next great story idea. And their newest production at the Lyric was meeting with a mediocre reception -- something the great Pirates of Penzance pair wasn't used to.

Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy meets up with Gilbert and Sullivan at this point, when the longtime collaborators' relationship was upside-down, and it looks at creative minds -- as opposite in their inspiration as can be -- struggling to put together something new without tearing themselves apart.

If you abhor Gilbert and Sullivan's creations, this isn't the movie for you. It may be a fascinating look at human nature and creativity, but you won't be able to get past the lengthy scenes of G&S performances. But if you're a fan -- or if you know nothing at all about the duo -- then Leigh has put together a profile not only of the great creators, but also of the actors and musicians, big and small, it takes to bring such a creation to life.

The first half of the movie is all about the struggle between innovation and compromise. And then, when G&S find themselves at an impasse, Gilbert's wife Lucy drags him to an exhibition of Japanese culture. It captures something in Gilbert's imagination, The Mikado begins to take form and Topsy-Turvy takes flight.

Leigh has a long background in the theater, and his love of the art and understanding of the theatrical temperament go far toward pulling his audience into the sweat and agonies we often mistake for magic on opening night. He's worked with several of Topsy-Turvy's actors before -- Lesley Manville (who plays Lucy Sullivan) and Timothy Spall (who is Richard Temple, the Mikado) in 1996's Secrets and Lies, for two. And he knows that, in theater, no matter how wonderful your leads are, your chorus had better be just as strong. Here, he's got it.

These bit players aren't tossed off to the side, or given numbers in the credits. They have names. They're given histories by Leigh's script. They have, in more than one case, the pivotal lines that push the story along. They move front and center as Gilbert (the wonderful Jim Broadbent from Enchanted April and Little Voice) and Sullivan (a gleeful, hedonistic, doubting Allan Corduner) begin to pull The Mikado together.

The players' weaknesses -- ego, alcohol, drugs -- are given as much weight as the struggles of the great composer and librettist to do something that has authentic Japanese flair. And, in the end, it's only fair: those people on stage will make or break The Mikado. (We've all seen enough horrible productions of great musicals to know that can happen.)

The great pair aren't a couple of saints -- two scenes at the end show their weak attempts to make the most basic of human connections with a wife (Gilbert) and a lover (Sullivan). Leigh has enough sense to make them real, instead: two men with great, great talents who sometimes overshadowed each other, often competed with each other and, on occasion, stifled each other. But when they were on the same page of the score, what they created together couldn't have been done with anyone else.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

Buy it from