This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Mike Leigh's "Topsy-Turvy" is the work of a man helplessly in love with the theater. In a gloriously entertaining period piece, he tells the story of the genesis, preparation and presentation of a comic opera--Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado"--celebrating all the dreaming and hard work, personality conflict and team spirit, inspiration and mundane detail, of every theatrical presentation, however inspired or inept. Every production is completely different, and they are all exactly like this.
As the movie opens, Arthur Sullivan and William S. Gilbert have had 10 hits in a row, and they rule the London stage. Their comic operettas, produced by the famed impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte, have even paid for the construction of the Savoy Theatre, where, alas, their latest collaboration, "Princess Ida," has flopped so badly that even Gilbert's dentist tells him it went on too long.
Sullivan, the composer, has had enough. Newly knighted by Queen Victoria, he decides it is time to compose serious operas: "This work with Gilbert is quite simply killing me." He flees to Paris and a bordello, where D'Oyly Carte tracks him down and learns that there may never be another collaboration between Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sullivan (Allan Corduner). When Sullivan returns to London, he has a meeting with Gilbert, tense and studiously polite, and rejects Gilbert's latest scenario, which is as silly as all of the others: "Oh, Gilbert! You and your world of Topsy-Turvy-dom!" The two men are quite different. Sullivan is a womanizer and a dandy, Gilbert a businessman with an eagle eye for theatrical detail. One day in the middle of the impasse, his wife, Kitty (Lesley Manville), drags him to London's newly opened Japan exhibition, where he observes a Kabuki performance, sips green tea and buys a sword, which his butler nails up over the door. Not long after, as he paces his study, the sword falls down, and inspiration strikes: Gilbert races to his desk to begin writing "The Mikado." The world of Gilbert and Sullivan is one of whimsical goofiness, presented with rigorous attention to detail. The fun is in the tension between absurd contrivance and meticulous delivery; consider the song "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" from "The Pirates of Penzance," which is delivered with the discipline of a metronome, but at breakneck pace. The form itself is a poke in the eye for Victorian values: The plots and songs uphold the conventional while making it seem clearly mad.
Mike Leigh might seem to be the last of the modern British directors to be attracted to the world of the Savoy operas. His films, which do not begin with finished screenplays but are "devised" by the director in collaboration with his actors, have always been about modern Britain--often about inarticulate, alienated, shy, hostile types, who are as psychologically awkward in his comedies as in his hard-edged work. His credits include "Life Is Sweet," "Naked" and "Secrets and Lies" and nothing remotely in the same cosmos as Gilbert and Sullivan.