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    Not head over heels

    We didn't exactly fall for "Topsy-Turvy," Mike Leigh's film about a shallowly drawn Gilbert and Sullivan.


    About two-thirds of the way into "Topsy-Turvy," the ambitious but ultimately disappointing new film from Mike Leigh ("Secrets and Lies"), there's a scene which hints at what might have been. William Gilbert, the librettist who formed a highly successful collaboration with composer Arthur Sullivan, is rehearsing three of his cast members in a scene from the latest comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan.

    Written and directed by: Mike Leigh.
    Cast: Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner.
    Cinematography: Dick Pope.

    Related links: Official site | All of David N. Butterworth's reviews at Rotten Tomatoes
    That's right: These are the Gilbert and Sullivan of Victorian England, and Leigh's film is a bold departure from his grittily realistic social dramas that featured working-class stiffs, not the toast of London's West End. What's notable about the scene in question, however, is that Leigh is once again at the top of his game as a writer and director, infusing the sequence with humor, awkwardness, repetition, silly accents, sarcasm, disrespect, and much more besides. Had the entire film been this delightful, then moviegoers would be in for a treat with "Topsy-Turvy."

    Unfortunately, everything prior to this point, some two hours of admittedly grand-looking screen time, has been dull as plainsong, tra-la-la on one note. There's a lot of talk, none of it particularly interesting, and several colorful musical numbers shot unimaginatively from the Savoy Theatre stalls. But there's no real inspiration here, let alone drama. Leigh himself appears to realize this, and crams enough sordid details of his characters' private lives into the film's final 40 (of a cramp-inducing 160) minutes to pad out an entire season of "Melrose Place": Gilbert's long-suffering wife Kitty longing for a child she can't have; Sullivan and his mistress discussing her next abortion; the operetta's leading lady hitting the sherry after performances, and another prominent member of the company shooting up before.

      There's a lot of talk, none of it particularly interesting, and several colorful musical numbers shot unimaginatively from the Savoy Theatre stalls. But there's no real inspiration here, let alone drama.
    Bang bang bang bang — all four of these come at us right out of the blue, eliciting what one Gilbert and Sullivan critic refers to as "topsy-turvydom."

    Advance notices might lead you to believe that "Topsy-Turvy" is a period piece about the making of "The Mikado," but it's not until, again, well into the film that Lucy "Kitty" Gilbert (played by longtime Leigh regular Leslie Manville) drags her husband along to a Japanese exhibition where the inspiration for Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular work is sparked.

    Leigh has spared no expense on the look and feel of the production, but what's missing is his trademark ability to get inside his characters. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner play the musical pair with authority, but we get little insight into what made their association so successful given that most of the film is spent with them stalemated at a creative impasse.

    Leigh's last three films — "Career Girls," "Secrets and Lies," and "Naked" — were all "best film of the year" selections for me. "Topsy-Turvy" represents a change of direction for the director and in so doing takes us away from what Mike Leigh does best: kitchen sink-styled slices of life highlighted by true depth of character. This is a Mikado that is sadly missing its Yum-Yum.

    FEBRUARY 7, 2000

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