While certainly not a title that was screaming out for a place in the prestigious Criterion Collection, Mike Leigh’s unexpectedly lavish period piece Topsy-Turvy from 1999 showed a side of the contemporary British filmmaker that hadn’t been seen before. After his acclaimed social-realist comedy-dramas such as Life is Sweet and Career Girls, Topsy-Turvy took Leigh into the genre of the epic historical drama, and the result is a mixed bag.
Following the creative partnership of the iconic Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sullivan (Allan Corduner), the story concerns a 15-month period leading up to the premiere of the pair’s comic opera The Mikado.
There is certainly a lot to enjoy in this beautifully designed film. Winning the Oscars for Costume Design and Makeup at the 72nd Academy Awards, the film certainly looks gorgeous. Topsy-Turvy is simply overflowing with stylistic flourishes that transport the viewer back to 1884, faithfully recreating the lifestyle of Victorian-era theatre folk. The pitch-perfect production design excels across the board and creates a dazzling aesthetic that certainly acts as the film’s high point. The attention to detail in terms of historical accuracy is also worthy of note, with true historical episodes littered throughout the film for buffs to enjoy.
The film also boasts wonderful performances from its cast, which combined with the gorgeous score from Carl Davis and all-round production design certainly elevate it to a high level of quality, but despite this, it isn’t a film that feels particularly innovative or original – and that is a crying shame. Delivering its narrative safely in the established boundaries of the traditional biopic, Topsy-Turvy doesn’t live up to its stunning visual craft due to a rather underwhelming structure and delivery. There is a lot to like here, but there are Mike Leigh films far more deserving of the Criterion treatment.
While Topsy-Turvy is certainly one of the most lavishly designed dramas of the era, its cookie-cutter approach to the subject leaves the final product lacking substance.