Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy is such a faithful rendering of a past era, it's as though the director time-warped his cinematographer back to 19th century England. In his first period piece, Leigh transplants the grittiness of his films' usual working-class British milieu, and the result is a Victorian England with a lived-in look, rather than one glossed over by a fanciful sheen. Armed with this sort of authenticity, Topsy-Turvy becomes a new classic among movies, documenting the behind-the-scenes fits and foibles of a dramatic production. And what better production than The Mikado, the hilarious turning point in the careers of Gilbert and Sullivan, whose precarious professional status made the choice of a Japanese-themed operetta all the more fraught with peril. Leigh lets loose and gets big laughs from his cast of prima donnas getting fitted for kimonos and taking lessons from the misinformed about how to "act Japanese." But the film also contains Leigh's noted finesse for examining emotional distance, most notably between Gilbert and his long-suffering wife (Leslie Manville). And Leigh regular Timothy Spall is unforgettable as he tries to swallow his wounded pride, learning only days before the premiere that his big number will be cut. Topsy-Turvy is the rare film in which grand-scale art direction and intimate character study both feel absolutely true. To echo the succinct praise of Broadbent's Gilbert, Topsy-Turvy is "capital."
by Derek Armstrong review