At first glance, Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy seems the oddball amongst the work of a filmmaker best known for the raw explorations of contemporary lower- and middle-class British life in Life Is Sweet, Secrets and Lies, Naked, Happy-Go-Lucky and more.
A period piece set in Victorian London, the film looks at the often contentious relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan and the creation of their musical, The Mikado, with staged numbers from the play (and other Gilbert and Sullivan shows) comprising half of the film’s running time. Rather than being a typical musical biopic, though, Topsy-Turvy finds Leigh using the conventions of the form to explore how Victorian life impacts all involved in The Mikado’s production, producing a film that sits comfortably with his best work.
Feeling stifled by the repetitious nature of their work together, composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) severs his decades-long partnership with librettist William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) until the later can break-free from the whimsical, “topsy-turvy” nature of their previous collaborations to write a narrative of emotional depth.
Hardheaded Gilbert refuses. Their differences seem irreconcilable until Gilbert finds inspiration at an exposition on Japanese art. The Mikado is soon born.
The new show’s production is charted from rehearsals through its opening. Theatrically trained Leigh required all cast members to sing their own parts, and the performances are all stellar — even by those not immediately known as musical performers, such as Leigh favorite Timothy Spall.
Yet the non-musical moments are where Topsy-Turvy shines. In between the showbiz workings are intimacies between Gilbert, Sullivan and their loved ones, and The Mikado’s stars and chorus. They find artists struggling to express themselves; lovers attempting to connect; and lonely souls dealing with addictions and troubles — all within the framework of a society balancing social, sexual and technological change with formal rigidity. Though Victorian set, the concerns are timeless.
This new Criterion Collection release packages Topsy-Turvy in a lovely two-DVD set, complete with an informative commentary track by Leigh, deleted scenes, interviews and, most significantly, the 1992 Leigh short, A Sense of History, starring Broadbent. Grade: A