You don't have to be a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operettas, penned in Victorian England, to enjoy director Mike Leigh's latest, and possibly most accomplished, offering. Leigh does not set out to present a biographical opus of the two famous musical collaborators; his ambitions are far more worldly than that. In Topsy-Turvy, Leigh sets out to draw the viewer backstage, behind the spotlights, to the complicated inner-workings of a theatrical production and into the hearts and minds of all the players.
The degree to which he succeeds is nothing short of astonishing.
By now most everyone has heard of Leigh's famous process of working intensely, one-on-one, with each of his actors to develop a character. After the actor has spent weeks immersed in the character, the cast begins improvising a script. In the case of Topsy-Turvy, the actual biographical direction of the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan had to be loosely followed, and the general outline of events included the conception and production of Gilbert and Sullivan's most famous work, The Mikado. But as with his other films (Naked, Life is Sweet, Secrets and Lies, Career Girls) the script grew organically out of the highly developed characters.
The result is a cinematic experience that immerses the viewer in the period, the place and the lives of the characters from the inside out. Leigh's Victorian London isn't of the Merchant-Ivory variety -- an exquisitely painted universe the viewer sees from a high, outside perch. In watching Topsy-Turvy, we can feel the claustrophobia of the drawing room, the creaky wood floor of the Savoy Theater stage, the tobacco-soaked atmosphere of the backstage dressing rooms. And more importantly, we come to know what drives the creative impulse -- from the point of view of the composers to the last, fragile actor in the cast.
The film begins with the production of Princess Ida, the pair's newest comic opera, which receives a lukewarm review from the Times, whose critic dubs Gilbert, the lyricist, "the King of Topsy-Turvydom." Sullivan, played soulfully by Allan Corduner, has grown weary of the collaboration and wants to turn his attention to more serious work.
But the composers are under contract to produce more work for Richard D'Oyly Carte (Ron Cook), the impresario of the Savoy. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), a nose-to-the-grindstone businessman, cranks out yet another libretto which is rejected by Sullivan and it seems the famous partnership is doomed to end.
But inspiration comes when Gilbert's wife Kitty (Lesley Manville) drags him to a Japanese exhibition where he is profoundly affected by a demonstration of Kabuki theater. He pens the lyrics to The Mikado as a result, and Sullivan responds with a brilliant musical score.
The second half of the film follows the development of The Mikado from the germ of an idea to finished, staged product, introducing us along the way to a string of talented actors, and to their frailties -- one is a morphine addict; one drinks too much; one, in spite of his talent, suffers from nagging self doubt.
In the end, the play is a success, but that doesn't change the personal lives of Gilbert or Sullivan, or of the cast. The haunting ending reminds us that the play is the thing -- boozy Leonora (Shirley Henderson) recites her character, Yum-Yum's soliloquy from The Mikado and sings a riveting solo that affirms the power of the actor's transcendent moment on the stage.
Topsy-Turvy teaches more about the craft of acting than any film in memory since, possibly, The Dresser, in 1983. But in the end, the film belongs to Broadbent and his brilliant realization of Gilbert -- a stern, sexless man with a wildly vivid imagination and instinctive knowledge of stagecraft. Watching his performance, we begin to understand the skill of directing, and to appreciate the emotional burden of being the one who carries the vision of the play in his head.
Leigh's generous tribute to the theater is nothing short of a tour de force. I've heard some complaints about the length -- almost three hours long -- but I could have easily stayed in that world, so completely realized, another hour. Topsy-Turvy more than deserves its recognition by critics as one of the best films of 1999.