Mike Leigh's amazing new film, Topsy-Turvy, begins over 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 he practices a staunch and conservative demeanor that 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 Reynolds (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) thinks is 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 upon the whole company. Despite the attempts of D'Oyly 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 is 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, one about a town called Titipu, where a wandering minstrel named Nanki-Poo (McKidd) falls in love with a sweetie named Yum-Yum (Henderson). Yum-Yum 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, beginning 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 and Lies (1996) and the wonderful, underrated Career Girls (1997). 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.
At first Topsy-Turvy seems far too glossy to be a Mike Leigh film. Upon closer examination, however, it's clear that this is no sellout, but rather an amplification of Leigh's estimable talent. All of the intimacy and idiosyncrasy (and neurosis) is fully intact (witness Leonora's attempt to conceal her drinking problem from D'Oyly 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, though, 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, corset-less, "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 of Career Girls) is forced to compromise his comic pantomime of the 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 alone is worth the price of admission.
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.