Directed by Mike Leigh
Review by Matt Heffernan
What hath John Madden wrought? No, not the former Raiders coach, the director of Shakespeare In Love. His film has spawned a new trend: backstage period films. Tim Robbins attempted a Depression-Era film with Cradle Will Rock, about Orson Welles directing a play by Marc Blitzstein. Now, Mike Leigh tries a Victorian angle, with the making of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado.
In 1884, William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) premiere their latest operetta for the Savoy Theatre: Princess Ida. It is modestly successful, but a definite decline from their previous work. Sullivan wants to get out of comic opera altogether, but he is still contracted to score another Gilbert libretto. When Gilbert presents a new play, Sullivan refuses to score it because it is too derivative of others they have done. So, Gilbert tries looking for another means of inspiration.
He attends an exhibition of Japanese art and culture with his wife, Lucy (Lesley Manville). He is immediately enchanted by all things Japanese, and conceives a play set in Japan, complete with authentic costumes and choreography. Sullivan is finally satisfied with Gilbert's submission, and they produce The Mikado, starring Richard Temple (Timothy Spall) in the title role. Now Gilbert must direct a very English company to ignore their Western prejudices and become a Japanese village.
Leigh's look at backstage life is very engaging and funny, but it has a serious problem. The supporting cast consists of the entire Savoy company, and a great deal of time is spent with several of the less-interesting members. This inflates the running length enormously, and keeps the film from achieving its full potential. If he had concentrated more on Gilbert and Sullivan themselves, Leigh could have shaved 40 minutes right off, and have a tight two-hour comedy (which is still an amazing feat).
American audiences may be largely unfamiliar with the all-British cast. For some reason, people need to see a familiar face, but after seeing Topsy-Turvy, they will never forget Broadbent's Gilbert. Gilbert was a famously funny man, and it takes a talent like Broadbent to bring him to life. His face is so expressive, even his moustache acts the part.
Topsy-Turvy has been getting plenty of high acclaim, including Best Film and Best Director awards from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. Broadbent also won a Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival, which begs the question: why no Golden Globe nominations? Of course, the Academy has no room for comedic actors, so there go his chances in America.
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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan