We gave it an A
The sublime Topsy-Turvy is a sunny period piece about a 19th-century theater company from Mike Leigh, one of our leading filmmakers dedicated to the dramatic study of the cloudy, contemporary Brit. In ”Life Is Sweet,” ”Naked,” and ”Secrets and Lies,” Leigh captured workaday existences made of untidy shreds and patches; in ”Topsy-Turvy,” he alights lovingly in the ritualized world of librettist William Schwenck Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, forever linked as Gilbert & Sullivan, the kings of Victorian popular operetta, without whom no high school drama-club experience is, to this day, complete.
Half of the running time is taken up with how the eccentric, repressed, curmudgeonly Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and the frail, sybaritic, sociable Sullivan (Allan Corduner) nearly parted ways in 1884 because Sullivan, chafing to write serious music, was uninspired by the recycled life-turned-upside-down plots his collaborator kept proposing. (A review of the duo’s minor ”Princess Ida” faintly praised Gilbert as the ”king of Topsy-Turvydom.”)
The rest of the movie — the soaring liftoff after the runway taxi — reenacts the making of ”The Mikado”: How Gilbert was inspired to write one of the pair’s most durable delights; how the two rehearsed with the orchestra and theater troupe of impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte at the Savoy Theatre; and how the 20th century beckoned one glittering night in 1885, when ”The Mikado” premiered, in all its Japan-via-Knightsbridge jocularity, to heartening acclaim. You’re likely to be moved to tears, amazed that the sight of actors in exaggerated Asian-face makeup singing ”For He’s Gone and Married Yum-Yum” could communicate such bravery and optimism.
On the surface, then, ”Topsy-Turvy” is an entirely different kettle of fish from the rest of the English director’s stock. At the heart of it, though, this vibrant homage to theater folk (at a time when colleagues addressed each other as Mister and Miss) is as acutely attuned to the nuances of class structure and interpersonal communication as any of the filmmaker’s most timely sociopolitical vignettes.
Built organically during lengthy cast improvs and rehearsals, as Leigh always prefers — many of the actors, like the spellbinding Broadbent, are longtime Leigh players — the movie sparkles with clear ideas about the way of the world as it was just a little more than a hundred years ago, when the sun was at full noon on the British Empire. ”Topsy-Turvy” reminds us that, in any age, creative expression is at once the most personal and most communal of enterprises.