Topsy-Turvy [1999]

Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama
At first glance, a musical period comedy-drama about Gilbert and Sullivan seems an odd fit for British filmmaker Mike Leigh, who made his name with searing, intense contemporary dramas such as Secrets and Lies and Career Girls. What could the Victorian world of two composers (of "light opera," no less) have to offer a filmmaker who specializes in the world of modern-day middle class England? Plenty, as it turns out. A wonderful meditation on the creation of art, Topsy-Turvy catches Gilbert and Sullivan at a crossroads in their illustrious careers. Having scored numerous hits (like The Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore), they've reached a creative dry spot with their latest, Princess Ida. Composer Sullivan (Allan Corduner) despairs of ever being taken seriously, and vows to write a "serious" piece, much to the consternation of librettist Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), who's flummoxed and unyielding when asked to change another of his whimsical, "topsy-turvy" scenarios. All seems lost when, thanks to his wife's insistence, Gilbert attends a Japanese exposition in London, and faster than you can say "Three little maids from school are we," inspiration strikes. The rest, as they say, is history, but Leigh re-creates the creative process with meticulous and loving care, from the writing of The Mikado to its staging (wherein Gilbert acts as director), costuming, orchestration, rehearsal, and ultimate premiere. Some may balk at the running time of the film (almost three hours), but it's a journey well worth taking, down to the precise details of late-19th-century London. Still, you'll know you're in Mike Leigh territory, with his precise characterizations and a heartfelt, melancholy ending. And no one has a way with actors like Leigh. This peerless ensemble, headed up by Broadbent in an Oscar-worthy performance, inhabits their characters like a second skin, and it's wonderful to see an authentic-feeling period drama in which the actors resemble real people and you don't expect someone glamorous like Helena Bonham Carter or Rupert Everett to pop up. Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados will revel in the reenactments of The Mikado (newcomers will likely be won over, too). All in all, a breathtaking film. --Mark Englehart

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