Taking a Turn With Topsy-Turvy (1999)


Both Kendra and Trystan took a hard pass on reviewing Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999) over the years, for various reasons. And then there’s me, the one of our little trifecta who actually can’t stand the overstuffed Victorian era at all, especially the height of the bustle era in the 1880s, and yet I love the ridiculous sumptuousness of the costumes in this movie so much. I also don’t go much for musicals and the plot is centered on the first staging of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, which, 130 years later, is still one of the perennial favorites of local musical theaters everywhere.

It could also be because it’s one of those films that stars half of the famous actors in Britain (there are only six starring actors working in the UK at any given time. You have to kill one of them Highlander-style to break in. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it): Shirley Henderson, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall, and Leslie Manville, making for a solid cast working with a solid script, and wearing solidly ridiculous period costumes. So basically everything I love about a good frock flick right there.

Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Shirley Henderson as the pampered ingenue.

Leigh’s long-standing collaborator Lindy Hemming (Wonder Woman) designed the costumes, which are practically perfect in both their sumptuous restraint and Victorian theatricality. In an interview with Criterion in 2011, she describes not only the Leigh’s famous improvisational technique and how it influenced the costumes she designed, but also how the actors embodied those costumes.

“At set points during the rehearsal or preproduction period, you have designated times of work, but mainly what happens is, as the actors work with Mike and they discuss who they are or are not going to play, and what kind of character it is, and what kind of world he or she lives in or works in, you — the costumer — come in to assist the actor to have the right kind of clothes, and sometimes props, that would go with the life or the person they’re choosing to become. You are researching what the actor is researching. You are looking into that world. What does this type of person wear? Where do they go out at night? You immerse yourself so that when you come back, when the actor has started to have a proper character — and all this is happening with different actors simultaneously — you begin to do their costumes as their character 100 percent…

…With corsets, we wanted the actors wearing them from day one, because that would inform how you move and how you breathe and who you are. I mean, how do you sing with a corset? The shoes as well. If someone wears high heels, there’s no point in them rehearsing in a pair of trainers.”

What is interesting is that Hemming asserts that Leigh gave her a fair amount of latitude to interpret the costuming of late-1880s Victorian society, and ultimately, the choice to focus on historical accuracy appears to be her own. It’s a choice that allows the actors to inhabit (and inhibit) their characters in a believable way. I firmly believe that if the costuming hadn’t been so accurate, the film would have collapsed under the weight of its own barely restrained ridiculousness.

The first half of the film deals with the stagnating careers of William Schwenck Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) who are increasingly at creative odds with one another. Sullivan’s ennui that has led to his reliance on morphine and alcohol. Gilbert, comfortable in his own genius as librettist, also must come to grips with the reality that their latest musical, Princess Aida, is a flop. Their impresario D’Oyle (pronounced “doily”, and played by Ron Cook) asks them to produce another musical as is required by their contract, but Sullivan flat out refuses on account of Gilbert’s relentlessly formulaic plot lines. They uneasily part ways with Sullivan embarking on a European tour which he hopes will help revive his creativity in order to write his own music when he returns. Gilbert stays behind in London and stalks his house with increasing irritability, much to the chagrin of his wife, Lucy (Lesley Manville).

That is, until one day, when Lucy returns from a visit to Knightsbridge where she informs her husband of an encounter with “three tiny Japanese ladies … in their funny dressing gowns.” The reason they are in London, it turns out, is because of a Japanese exhibition at Humpfreys’ Hall. This was only 35 years or so years since Japan had opened its kingdom to the West, so, of course, curiosity gets the better of Gilbert, and he and Lucy spend an afternoon wandering the exhibition. Gilbert is immediately captivated by a kabuki performance, despite having no idea what the actors are saying. He returns home with a souvenir katana and a vague notion of something starting to percolate in his imagination. He then goes on to write the libretto for The Mikado, which is received well by Sullivan who agrees to compose the music, and everyone is satisfied that the topical nature of the plot (coinciding as it does with the Victorian craze for japonisme) will produce a hit.

The intersection where Victorian society, with all of its extremely problematic xenophobia and racism, mixed with overconfidence and curiosity, meets the human zoo-like aspect of the Japanese exhibition is where things get uncomfortable for modern audiences. Even though this film came out in 1999, the societal understanding of cultural appropriation was fairly nonexistent outside of academia. Re-watching the film recently, I found it uncomfortable how Leigh approached the topic, which is to say that he really didn’t address it so much as revel in it. In an interview with The Guardian around the time the movie came out, Leigh even says, “it’s fantastically, wonderfully un-PC,” which is about as typical for the late-1990s as you can get. Modern audiences might not be so easily lulled into the whimsy as turned off by the racist undertones and hand-waving about “camp.”

Hemming, though, had a bit more nuanced approach to the costuming, which stayed true to the inherent nature of the Victorian age and in turn makes the white people look even more ridiculous without the Japanese tutors that were brought in to assist with the production. I will be so bold as to state that the costuming tells the real story of how authentic the Japanese are in their Japanesness and how inauthentic the whites are in their whiteness.

“We wanted it to be a perceived version of what the Japanese looked like. We wanted it to be Victorian Japanese. The wooden Japanese clogs were most amazing to the Victorians. They thought them wonderful and funny in turn. We were looking into the technology of fabrics, of where they were produced, what dyes they would have used, how things would have been printed or hand-painted, you know? We had to know how the day-to-day fabrics worked as well as the theatrical costumes, and how they were made.” — Lindy Hemming, Dressing for Leigh

Not surprisingly, however, the costumes produced for The Mikado are inflected with Victorianisms. The actresses refused to wear the kimono without a corset, so the designer had to engineer an obi/corset hybrid that satisfied everyone’s needs at least on the surface. Honestly, the entire costume-fitting scene in the movie is pure genius and will ring very true to anyone who has ever worked as a costume designer.

1999 Topsy Turvy

The bottom line is that I really keep wanting to apologize for liking this movie as much as I do, because it is super problematic as a modern film dealing with race, cultural appropriation, and Otherness. Yet, at the same time, it’s hard not to see it for what it is: An authentic look at how performative Victorian society was and how that performativity informed art. If you approach Topsy-Turvy as an unashamed view of all the character flaws of the Victorian age converging on one production of a musical circa 1888, you will likely find the film an enjoyable visual feast of late-19th-century silliness.


What did you think of Topsy-Turvy? 


About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

33 Responses

  1. susan l eiffert

    As I remember this fun movie, I think it did point up the racism, ignorance, and stereotypes of the period, don’t remember it being oblivious or cringeworthy..
    I also quite agree with you about those 6 English actors. Over the decades, I’ve observed the steady, predictable rotation of a few stars that seem to appear in every movie and TV series, from Cherie Lunghi and Anthony Andrews to Michelle Dockery and Jim Broadbent…

  2. Roxana

    Is it so terrible to be made uncomfortable by genuine period ideas? I don’t think so. And for what it’s worth the Japanese treated westerners like people in a zoo too. We were the Others and e optics to them.

    • Saraquill

      I’m PoC. It’s exhausting to get beaten over the head with micro and macro aggressions in media, fandom and elsewhere. “Historical accuracy” doesn’t make things less painful.

      • M.E. Lawrence

        Have been considering your comment, Saraquill. What historical movies do you find non-aggressive, whether accurate or not-so-accurate?

        (Being white, I don’t claim to understand; as a woman, I think of male-directed films where the “feisty” girlfriend of whatever century is a journalist or something, but is never shown working or contributing to the plot. Not to mention that beachy hair…)

      • Trystan L. Bass

        I think the difference is when uncomfortable period ideas are questioned or not. Now, this can be heavy-handed & look like an attempt to modernize (or make “politically correct”) a historical piece, so I understand that it’s not easy. And Topsy Turvy was made two decades ago, so that film itself is not exactly up to date.

        Tho’ for one example, I point to my favorite MAS*H — because it was made in the 1970s & early ’80s, & when it depicted historically accurate racist & sexist 1950s characters, they were often shown as the ‘bad guys’ & the butt of jokes. It can be done.

        • M.E. Lawrence

          Oh, god, poor Frank. And, really, one couldn’t dislike Frank, if only because it was so much fun to laugh at him. And Margaret Houlihan’s character grew and gained in dignity over the years.

  3. Shashwat

    I was surprised to read that the actresses refused to wear a corset.That too underneath a kimono.
    It is strange that cinema resorts to simplification and overt dramatisation of race and gender issues,when things were so complicated back then.Modern cinematic productions rarely indulge in racism to such degree,but script the situation in a fashion that contradicts the norms of the day.I felt terrible the way this race issue was handled in the Sanditon adaptation.SO.MUCH.DRAMA.And though this movie had a more historical practice as a plot point(something that might have been considered common in Victorian society),reducing it to a comic incident certainly ruffles my feathers.We don’t expect to be represented as martyrs or paragon of purity.We have existed as long back as the history of mankind goes,and we only expect to be represented as humans.Neither as uncivilized barbarians,nor some unidimensional mentor/sidekick/lackey to the MrPerfect.Flaws make a character relatable,not some dramatic coincidences that humans don’t chance upon in the uninhibited flow of their mundane existence.The uncivilized barbarian and white saviour trope has been unashamedly celebrated for a long time.Maybe I see just one side of the coin as a non white,still.
    The costumes though are interesting and really pretty.

    • Shashwat

      Sorry it should read refused to go without a corset
      Where art thou,edit comment board,when myself needs thee most?

  4. Hooley

    This film is on my top list just for the performances of Shirley Henderson and Timothy Spall and how they manage Victorian costumes. As a G&S fan, Mike Leigh’s genius rates for me in his matching actors to the originals (Kevin McKidd played a Scotsman – look them all up on Wikipedia) was perfect (the actors do their own singing). The poignancy between Lenora Branham’s (played by Ms. Henderson) two lives – her personal life and her theatrical persona is touching — especially the contrast between Ms. Branham’s alcoholic demons and her portrayal of the narcissistic Yum-Yum. The end makes me cry everytime — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rP2qJXT3olM.

  5. Donna Scarfe

    Talking about British actors who have gone on from here – the choreographer, Andy Serkis, has done a fantastic job with motion capture technique in The Lird of the Ring films and the Planet if the Apes series. I LOVE the costumes of this show. It was the first time I had seen a man (one of the lead singers in the dressing room) in a CORSET!! Revelation. And as a milliner I drooled over their hats. And being American, I had not grown up on the G & S canon as my English husband had so the whole Mikado story was new to me and had to go rent a version so I could see the whole thing through.

    • Aleko

      Also, did you realise that the prissy lead singer who wouldn’t perform without his corset was Kevin McKidd, who played the hunky, macho Lucius Vorenus in Rome???

  6. Viola

    I adore this film. Not just because I love Gilbert & Sullivan (though Mikado is not one of my favourites – that would be Iolanthe or The Yeomen of the Guard) but because it’s such a love letter to theatre.

  7. Ms M.

    I haven’t watched this in years, but I remember being delighted that it showed the actors wearing corsets as well as the actresses. The exhibition of Japanese culture was uncomfortable, in the same way that reading about a lot of late 19th century “anthropological exhibitions” can be – a very clear example of racism.

    Mostly I remember it as a film showing how exasperating and over the top theatre productions can be.

  8. bristowjen

    Honestly, I’m with you re: bustle era clothing. I like looking at them, but hate the idea of wearing the style – or sewing it…

  9. Al Don

    This film introduced me to Allan Corduner, who I think is a wonderful, underrated actor. In this particular film his visage perfectly fits the era (in my opinion).

  10. Lee Jones

    I firmly believe that if the costuming hadn’t been so accurate, the film would have collapsed under the weight of its own barely restrained ridiculousness.

    I never felt that the costumes were the center of “Topsy Turvy”, so I find it hard to believe that barely accurate costumes would have allowed the film to collapse. Which is why I find it even harder to regard it as “ridiculous”.

  11. Orian Hutton

    I have loved this film since it first came out. As a historian, I take any era warts and all and try not to view its society or cultural values through modern eyes or with modern judgements. I just enjoyed this film for its fairly accurate portrayal of the times and the people. And loved the clothes. I might not want to wear them, but I admire the detailing in the making. Have a few original bustle dresses in my personal collection and just love the design thought that went into them. Thanks for getting up close and personal with these costumes and helping me enjoy them all over again. Time to get out the DVD and have another watch.

  12. ladylavinia1932

    The bottom line is that I really keep wanting to apologize for liking this movie as much as I do, because it is super problematic as a modern film dealing with race, cultural appropriation, and Otherness.

    I don’t understand this comment. Did you expect the movie’s characters to be culturally sensitive? In late Victorian London?

  13. Susan Pola Staples

    I’m don’t think Sullivan was the person relying on morphine. It was George Grovesmith.

  14. G&S Fan

    I really like Topsy Turvy when I saw the movie, and I am glad to see this review. I’m a bit disappointed that so much space in the review was taken up with metaphorical breast beating about feeling guilty about how the Victorians were culturally uninformed about other nations, etc. etc.

    A film, by design, is telling a story. All stories have points of view. This film was a trip to 1880s London, during the height of the Victorian empire. The actors were necessarily playing a part- displaying all their contemporary attitudes and beliefs, and they succeeded in that brilliantly.

    The actors were very close facsimiles of their real-life Victorian counterparts. I would have liked to have heard more about Gilbert’s obliviousness when it came to what “men and women” do in the privacy of their bedroom – Leslie Mandeville gave a masterfully restrained performance as a long-suffering wife who had to put up with a bullying martinet of a husband.
    George Grosmith’s cocaine habit was a revelation, as was Lenora Braham’s suggested alcoholism.

  15. Kathy Gustafson

    I love this movie. Adore Shirley Henderson beyond words. Wish I could find it at a reasonable price.

  16. Anne

    “Honestly, the entire costume-fitting scene in the movie is pure genius and will ring very true to anyone who has ever worked as a costume designer.” And it features Alison Steadman, a.k.a. the best Mrs. Bennett, as the costumer!

  17. Cassandra

    So… Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan)… was a weaboo? The FIRST weaboo?

    Oh my god, this explains so much.