The evening of March 14, 1885, was an auspicious one in the annals of musical theater. Less than four years had passed since the opening of London's Savoy Theatre, built specifically for the productions of librettist William Schwenk Gilbert and composer Arthur Seymour Sullivan. The partners' first six works had catapulted them to great success, and the regal Savoy housed their final eight, most notably The Mikado, which ran after that splendid night for an unprecedented 672 consecutive performances.
Mike Leigh's amazing new film, Topsy-Turvy, begins more than a year earlier, as the recently knighted Sullivan (Allan Corduner) rises from his sickbed to conduct the first performance of Princess Ida at the Savoy. The new comic opera receives a lukewarm response, and although Sullivan's score garners praise, Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) is dubbed "the King of Topsy-Turvydom" by a petulant critic. We soon discover that these two professional collaborators are in fact a sort of Victorian odd couple. Gilbert's a sophisticate and a master of lyrical whimsy, but his staunch and conservative demeanor leaves his wife, Lucy "Kitty" Blois Turner (Lesley Manville), stranded on an emotional tundra. Sir Arthur, on the other hand, leads a heated life of debauchery, frolicking across Europe with prostitutes and at home with his mistress, Mrs. Fanny Ronalds (Eleanor David), an American expatriate separated from her husband. The only elements the composer seems to take seriously are his failing kidneys and his music, which he deems too dignified to be forever tied to Gilbert's silly plays.
The two men share a mild but significant distaste for one another, further exacerbated by the floundering of Princess Ida, which even Gilbert's dentist (David Neville) deems too long. Savoy thespians Richard Temple (Timothy Spall) and Durwand Lely (Kevin McKidd) argue about the creative team's future -- specifically, whether they'll have one. ("The sword of Damocles hovers ominously over the Savoy Theatre," laments Temple, but Lely, a staunch Scot, disagrees.) Despite a contractual agreement with manager and impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) to produce a new show for the theater he built them, Gilbert and Sullivan lose their common ground, with Sullivan pining for serious opera and rejecting Gilbert's latest offering as a retread of their previous work. Their earlier success, The Sorcerer, is revived in an attempt to increase attendance, but a poignant scene between depressed leading actresses Leonora Braham (Shirley Henderson) and Jessie Bond (Dorothy Atkinson) reveals the funk that has descended on the entire company. Despite the attempts of Carte's assistant, Helen Lenoir (Wendy Nottingham), to reconcile them, Gilbert refuses to write an alternate libretto, and Sullivan complains that he feels like a barrel organ. All seems lost.
Hope and inspiration emerge from a surprising source, as Kitty coaxes her dismayed husband to explore a Japanese exhibition in Knightsbridge. The couple are mesmerized by the arts, crafts, green tea and Kabuki theater of the transplanted village, and soon enough Gilbert's newly acquired samurai sword falls from the wall of his study, bonking him soundly and reinvigorating his dormant muse. An idea seizes him, about a town called Titipu where a wandering minstrel named Nanki-Poo (McKidd) falls in love with a sweetie named Yum-Yum (Henderson), who is the ward of Ko-Ko, the town's lord high executioner, played by the Savoy's star performer, George Grossmith (Martin Savage). The rest is history, but it's also where Topsy-Turvy hits its stride and really takes off, revealing the countless physical and emotional challenges of bringing The Mikado to the stage.
Leigh has built a sturdy reputation for exploring the lives of the modern English working class, starting in 1971 with his feature debut (and adaptation of his own play), Bleak Moments, and carrying on through the '70s and most of the '80s in British television features. He returned to features in 1988 with High Hopes and achieved international acclaim for Naked (1993), Secrets & Lies (1996) and the wonderful, underrated Career Girls (1997). By this point, his unflinching focus on the intimate details of the Thatcher era and post-Thatcher regular Joes and Josephines had carved him his unique niche. A master of idiosyncratic characters who never reduces his subjects to caricature, Leigh has developed, through extensive work in theater, a method of directing that involves exhaustive improvisation among his actors.
Why mention all this? Because at first Topsy-Turvy seems far too glossy to be a Mike Leigh film. On closer examination, however, it's clear that this is no sell-out but, rather, an amplification of Leigh's estimable talent. All the intimacy and idiosyncrasy (and neurosis) are fully intact (witness Leonora's attempt to conceal her drinking problem from Carte or the hallucinatory fit of Gilbert's aged father). The story loses none of its intimacy for being framed by opulent Victorian sets, which serve only to heighten our appreciation of these characters and their struggles. The feuds and compromises of Gilbert and Sullivan form the core of the film, but everyone has something to work out. Grossmith is insulted by his meager increase in salary, Gilbert's deaf mother (Eve Pearce) castigates his sisters ("Never bear a humorous baby!"), and even colonial Britain is encountering heavy friction at Khartoum.
None of this detracts from the processes of theatrical preparation and rehearsal, which form the film's heart and source of wonder. The scenes of both sexes of doubtful actors bemoaning their formless, corsetless, "obscene" kimonos are deeply amusing, as is a smashing segment in which Cockney choreographer John D'Auban (Andy Serkis, utterly transformed from the real-estate jerk in Career Girls) is forced to compromise his comic pantomime of traditional Japanese gait. There's something truly satisfying about witnessing Sullivan at the piano, teaching his male leads his new song, "A Short, Sharp Shock," and the spectacle of Temple cavorting through his ludicrous and hilarious Mikado song is alone worth the price of admission.
Performances are outstanding throughout, and Broadbent, known on these shores for Brazil, Time Bandits and Little Voice, is an exemplary Gilbert -- stodgy but always harboring a carefully veiled glimmer. Equally superb is Corduner (The Impostors), who invests Sullivan with the prickly sensibilities of an artist working miracles below what he deems the full extent of his potential. Special kudos also to Spall, Savage, McKidd and Henderson, whose work onstage, in both The Sorcerer and The Mikado, is spellbinding (plus they've got terrific voices, especially McKidd and Henderson).
Leigh's work in theater has paid off in his technical direction as well, for the Savoy comes alive for the performances, with each luminous shot lovingly composed. Because the Savoy was the first public building in the world to be lit with the use of electricity, Leigh and his designers have worked the novel new lights into many of the shots as well, adding both a quaintness and (along with Gilbert's clumsy use of a new contraption called the telephone) a sense of rapidly advancing modernization. It's also worth mentioning that Robin Sales' editing, especially between the performers and cutaways to the audience, is so fluid that the operas seem less filmed than live.
It's pretty likely that audiences will take some time to warm up to the Victorian charm of Topsy-Turvy. (Besides, by today's sophisticated standards, Gilbert's century-old Mikado makes Eric Idle's friendly, left-handed "I Like Chinese" seem like an Asian pride anthem.) It would be easy to compare this film to John Turturro's recent (and equally glowing) Illuminata, but Leigh is a more mature artist and unhindered by Turturro's pretensions. Instead, think of Topsy-Turvy as this year's Amadeus, a masterful film about the magic of performance and the foibles of the artists behind it.