Topsy-Turvy, a British film that came out in 2000, is about Gilbert and Sullivan, and how they came to create their masterpiece, The Mikado. It’s a magnificent work, beautiful in soul and in conception, glowing with love of the theater, and a triumph for the writer and director, Mike Leigh.
Now, it’s rare in period pieces that we escape the sense that a romantic haze separates us from the time in question, or even more commonly, that sets and costumes merely provide a quainter setting for present day themes and concerns. What Leigh has done here is stay true to the year 1885 in England and the real people that inhabited that world. What’s most impressive is the way the characters talk to one another, not in the clipped formal diction of theater but more the way people talked informally—a different world than today in many ways, but still a world where public propriety was at odds with people’s private behavior and inclinations.
Leigh is an actor’s director, and it’s a pleasure to be in the hands of so many experts. Jim Broadbent is a brilliant Gilbert, a dominating personality when he knows what he wants from the actors, yet ever insecure and unable to enjoy his success. I was fascinated by the performance of Allan Corduner as Sullivan, at different times droll, petulant, childish, or filled with creative joy. Among the supporting players Ron Cook is a suitably dapper and self-assured D’Oyley Carte; Timothy Spall and Martin Savage play the old ham Temple and the spry, mocking Grossmith to the hilt. Another standout is Shirley Henderson as the vain, amusing young actress Leonora Braham. And Lesley Manville is a fine Lucy Gilbert—she has a great scene at the very end with Broadbent that crowns the joy of success with a private sorrow.
Topsy-Turvy is about the musical theater, something of its pain and frustration, but mostly its joy. Leigh is painstaking about the process of putting a show together. One of the best scenes has Gilbert going over a particular scene with the actors over and over, quite funny and pointed about the discipline and direction needed in rehearsal. The joy of artifice, and the real work that goes into it; the people who made it happen in a particular moment of time—that is the film’s point, if you must have one. Most of all there is the music itself. There is plenty of it, as well there should be in a film about Gilbert & Sullivan, and it is performed and staged in stunning fashion.
One can always find serious ideas to ponder in Leigh’s comedies. And in one brief scene, where Gilbert encounters a strange woman in an alley, he touches on his old theme of the disparity in social classes. But for the most part, Topsy-Turvy celebrates the sheer pleasure that the theater provides us, while letting us glimpse behind the scenes at the struggles that bring this pleasure to birth. It’s a film of tenderness and humor and delight, and one can’t ask for much more than that.