Topsy Turvy (1999) Review

Poster with the words "The Mikado on top, and a full length portrait of the character kaisha, in traditional dress and holding a sword, surrounded by flowers.
The Mikado, promotional poster from the Gilbert and Sullivan theatrical production, by Johnathan B. Jeffrey, ca. 1885

I purposely avoided Moliere, Shakespeare in Love, and almost every other movie about a playwright.  I do this because I respect writers like Shakespeare, and I find their period fascinating.  I likewise avoid most movies about Thomas Jefferson.  I prefer the Jefferson that I read in his letters, or from his contemporaries, to the cartoon lecher that Hollywood spoon feeds us with.

It ain’t just reverence and respect for the past, I don’t like the glossy misinterpretations.  Those movies about great people are often like sampling Mozart into some kind of techno elevator music.

As I’m not the world’s biggest Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and the Victorian era England doesn’t particularly excite me, I didn’t feel that Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy could do much damage.  Besides, when I joined the Aberystwyth Film Society, I got a festival pass.

What surprised me before seeing the movie is that Gilbert and Sullivan fans actually liked it and praised it.  Then again, people who claimed to have read and enjoyed the Bard actually sat through Shakespeare in Love.  But, anyway, it brought my expectations up a bit from what are usually the two worst kinds of films:  movies about writers and movies about musicians.  That, and the fact that the average audience member was twice my age.  Old people don’t tend to watch as much garbage as kids do.  But films about writers and musicians still tend to be lousy.

Okay, so there are worse things then films about writers and musicians.  There are serious art films about writers and musicians.  And, Victorian movies tend to be pretty bad too in the competition for “worst genre of all time.”  So, you can imagine, I didn’t have my expectations too high.

Well, if you loved this movie, look away now, because I’m about to give it a bad review.

I thought the acting, the scenery, the facial hair, the camera work, and the technical specifications were lovely.  But I really think this film could have benefited from a script.

The characters were stereotypes.  A drugged out actor who wants more money.  A drunken girl who wants to be pretty.  A writer who neglects his family.  A musician who is a hedonist and wants to make “art.”  Business people who want to make money.  This isn’t about Victorian England at all, it’s about stereotypes of Post-Thatcher Britain, done up in historical costume.

That’s not to say there weren’t moving scenes, there were.  Within that 160 minutes, there’s a great 90 minute movie waiting to be cut away.  It may be even longer than that.  Maybe 92 minutes, if you roll the credits slow enough.

It’s fun to watch actors who want to wear corsets for vanity, to imagine that family debates can still occur behind sideburns and mustaches, and to see scene after scene of raw emotion.

However, at some point, there are certain elements one doesn’t expect to see in a rated 12 movie.  There are certain scenes which do nothing for the story, and do nothing for the character.  They may be well executed, but if they belong anywhere, it’s in another movie.

I’m not the biggest fan of Mike Leigh.  I saw Secrets and Lies once, and though I wasn’t about to ask for my money back or complain, I wasn’t in line to get it on DVD either.

I’m not the biggest enemy of Leigh either, I walked in Topsy Turvy after knowing it was a Leigh film and I didn’t walk out until the credits rolled.

What I don’t get is these Leigh worshipers, people who think he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread (or perhaps they dislike sliced bread because it’s mechanical, and they’ll say something is “the greatest thing since Mike Leigh.”)  I guess Gilbert and Sullivan fans are in the same camp.  So, if you a camp fanboy, or a fan of the camp brands G ‘n’ S or ML, then forget my review and enjoy the movie.  Go on, stop reading, watch it.

If, on the other hand, you have a list of millions of films to see before you die, and only have hours to live, give this one a miss.

Again, I prefer Leigh to Tarantino and Costner, as he’s not as crude as some Hollywood hams, but this particular film just has too many characters and too little focus, kind of like Batman and Robin or Prêt-à-Porter, or Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra.

That said, the audience laughed and enjoyed Topsy Turvy.  It probably helps to have actual quotes from Gilbert and Sullivan’s work.  If you can’t afford to see their plays, this film is entertaining.

And despite everything, it has a good story.  Topsy Turvy is great chewing gum for the brain.