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Starring: Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner
Director: Mike Leigh
Rated: M

WHILE at school, several generations of Catholics performed Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. These operettas were the backbone of public entertainment in Australia for most of this century.

They were considered to be innocuous, humorous and simple to stage. Most of all, the director could have hundreds of people in the chorus, even if they could not sing!

Set in 1884, Topsy-Turvy tells the story of the working relationship between W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan at Richard D’Oyly Carte’s Savoy Theatre in London.

After a string of great successes with HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and Iolanthe, Sir Arthur Sullivan wants to write a serious opera without W.S. Gilbert and the Savoy Theatre. This desire threatens one of the most famous musical relationships in Englijsh theatre history. Sullivan rejects all of Gilbert’s ideas for a new operetta. Eventually Gilbert comes up with a libretto entitled The Mikado. More than half of Topsy-Turvy is taken up with the development, rehearsal and opening night of this, their most famous operetta.

G&S fans will love many things about this film, most of all the wonderful singing and music which accounts for more than 30 minutes of the film’s length.

It is a sumptuous film to look at, with extraordinary attention to period detail. It has some great comic touches and, as one expects, Gilbert has all the good one-liners! It draws to the viewer’s attention inventions in the 1880s that were novel ร telephones, the fountain pen and theatrical special effects. It also demonstrates the domination of all things French on this period of English society.

At a deeper level, this film explores the personalities of the prodigiously talented Gilbert and Sullivan. Jim Broadbent gives an outstanding portrayal of Gilbert. He is ill-tempered, overbearing, melancholic, cynical and so frightened of failure he never attended a performance on opening night. He turned up just in time to take his bow. Alan Corduner’s Sullivan is neurotic about his health, fathers a child with a married woman and encourages her to have an abortion and consorts with women in prostitution. I wonder if we would have preformed their operas if we knew all this about them?

~Mike Leigh’s point is that, as in Victorian society so now, there are plenty of “secrets and lies” that still demand that we compartmentalise our private morality and put on a public show.

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