Crazy for 'Topsy-Turvy': Mike Leigh Animates Gilbert and Sullivan

Article excerpt

Topsy-turvy," a period film so lived-in it makes most historical movies look like costume parties, begins in the humid London summer of 1884, when Gilbert and Sullivan's latest Savoy theater production, "Princess Ida," is wilting on the boards, and the two utterly different collaborators have reached a creative impasse. The composer, Arthur Sullivan (Alan Corduner), is a hedonist and bon vivant who aspires to write more serious music. The grouchy, proper W. S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), married to the long-suffering, childless Lucy (Lesley Manville), writes the clever librettos, whose inspired silliness seems an unlikely outgrowth of such an anhedonic man.

Mike Leigh's wonderful, bittersweet film (voted best picture of the year by both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics) isn't actually about their collaboration--they work separately, and have surprisingly few scenes together. It's Leigh's loving but tough-minded salute to the creative process itself. The G&S stalemate is broken when Gilbert, inspired by a Japanese exhibition in London, conceives of the idea for "The Mikado." In delightful, knowing detail, "Topsy-Turvy" takes us from first rehearsal to opening night. At the helm is Gilbert, virtually inventing the process we now call "directing." Broadbent brilliantly captures his gruff mix of authority and insecurity. …