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.
Yet the effect is one of casual artlessness. Handed a newfangled fountain pen with its own ink reservoir, Sullivan beams with delight at such ingeniousness. Caring for Gilbert’s neurasthenic, crotchety mother, his two spinster sisters putter in a stuffy room choked with middle-class gewgaws. These are haikus, beautiful and fleeting.
D’Oyly Carte’s company performs pinned to the chin, as Victorian propriety required (both ladies and gents first protest when coaxed to forgo their corsets under richly embroidered Japanese silk robes). But while Gilbert does the novel thing of precisely rehearsing his actors, Leigh (who thrives on flexibility) gently reveals his characters’ naked, timeless selves. The company’s lead soprano (Shirley Henderson) is a single mother with a drinking problem. The leading comedian (Martin Savage) takes morphine. Beneath the florid thespian posturing of the character actor who plays the title role (the indispensable Timothy Spall) is a dedicated artist heartbroken when Gilbert cuts one of his songs.
Lit as if by golden lamplight, their sets and costumes a profusion of rose and lemon hues, Leigh’s tight-knit players breathe vital life into antique psyches. Art about the artistic process can be deep (Children of Paradise, Sunday in the Park With George), but it can just as easily slip into facile self-absorption (Shakespeare in Love, Illuminata). By the time Henderson, as Yum-Yum, sings her aria ”The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze” in a breathtaking coda, we know we’re in the realm of art about art that’s magnificent. Beginning in intimate close-up on the singer’s drink-flushed face as she peers in a mirror, the camera pulls back with exquisite slowness, and by the end of her sweet, circular song we see the entire theater, with Yum-Yum a tiny figure alone on the stage. Topsy-Turvy reminds us that, in any age, creative expression is at once the most personal and most communal of enterprises. A