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Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Lesley Manville, Eleanor David, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall, Kevin McKidd, Martin Savage,  Shirley Henderson, Dorothy Atkinson, Wendy Nottingham, Jonathan Aris, Alison Steadman
Running Time 160 minutes

There are few movies that affect both the mind and heart. Even those that are critically and popularly acclaimed tend to be either serious dramas that make the audience think (Magnolia and Talented Mr. Ripley being two examples from this holiday season) or well-told stories that entertain (Sixth Sense). American Beauty defied its genre constraints by making us laugh and ponder; but even there, its humor churned our stomachs more than lifted our spirits.

Topsy-Turvy, the new film from director Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies), is that rare creature that both tickles the funny bone and stimulates the gray matter. Following the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan as well as the fortunes of their Savoy Theatre Company over the course of 18 months, the movie is one that can be enjoyed purely for its surface pleasures but offers much more for those willing to take the plunge.

It begins on Jan. 5, 1884 with the opening night performance of Princess Ida. Sir Arthur Sullivan, who wrote the music and directs the first night, is frightfully nervous. Only with the help of numerous attendants (and generous amounts of alcohol and narcotics) is he able to take the podium. But the production seems to be a success, that is until W. S. Gilbert, the operetta's librettist, reads the next day's reviews. While the papers acknowledge the production's humorous qualities, they decry Gilbert's reliance on plot tricks and wit. In a backhanded compliment, they crown him "the legitimate monarch of topsy-turvy."

As it turns out, Sullivan has similar concerns. In a wonderful conversation between the two men, Sullivan voices his distress at the use of magic as a plot device ("magic coin...magic town...magic ring"). Unfortunately, Gilbert's latest idea utilizes a magic potion. That and Gilbert's overbearing manner convince Sullivan to take a holiday on the continent.

Things don't look any better when Sullivan returns, as he stands by his earlier refusal to write music for anything he deems substandard. Gilbert, being a (excuse the cliche) proud and stubborn man, takes a similar if opposite tack by rejecting any suggestion that he alter his story. That is, until his wife Kitty (Lesley Manville, Secrets and Lies) drags him to a Japanese exhibition. There, transfixed by the Japanese drama and swordfighting, he is inspired to write a new libretto, which eventually will become The Mikado.

The rest of the movie is a delightful look at the preparations that go into creating a new work. While it differs from many "backstage" movies in that it gives equal time to the characters' outside interests, there are also numerous scenes of practices, costume fittings, and chorus members gossiping in their dressing rooms.

Mike Leigh has become famous in film circles for his unorthodox approach to script writing and filming. Typically, each actor creates his or her character's entire history, and is given only the information about the other characters that his character would actually know. The script is worked out over months of improvisational rehearsals. And only then does shooting begin.

In a movie about real people and real situations, the process changed somewhat, substituting exhaustive research for lengthy character creation. Still, though, the emphasis on development through improvisation continued, which is reflected in the rich story that unfolds. Every portrayal, from Gilbert and Sullivan to the company's business managers to minor characters like servants and singers, feels solid, as if these are real people and not just useful plot devices. Therefore, even small scenes, like an argument between a minor actor and the impresario about salaries, are thoroughly interesting.

Topsy-Turvy is helped immeasurably by its outstanding acting performances. With the exception of Magnolia, this is the finest ensemble cast of the year. From Ron Cook as the Savoy's business manager to Timothy Spall (Secrets and Lies) as the lead baritone to Eleanor David as Sullivan's mistress, the portrayals are sharp and compelling. The two leads are even better. Allan Corduner (Talk Radio) as Sullivan is enchanting as a man who enjoys the pleasures of life, making music most of all. That Corduner can actually play the piano on-screen is merely a bonus. And Jim Broadbent's performance as Gilbert is a towering display of Victorian rigidity and brusqueness. Though his facial expression rarely changes, Broadbent (Richard III) communicates volumes with a twitch of his mustache or a raising of the eyebrow. His command of Leigh's dialogue is awesome to watch.

That dialogue, like Gilbert and Sullivan's own work, is filled with wit and verve. When Gilbert remarks "I would rather spend an afternoon in a Turkish bath with my mother than visit the dreaded dentist," laughter erupted in the audience, as it did repeatedly throughout the screening.

But Topsy-Turvy isn't just a good story with lots of laughs. Leigh wants to focus on issues of authenticity and anachronisms. Particularly in the preparations for The Mikado, Gilbert's obsession with getting the costumes and dances authentically Japanese is contrasted with the limitations of doing so. When one character exasperatedly asks, "Is that a recognized Japanese custom?" Gilbert responds, "No it is not, but I have every expectation that it soon will be." Even Dick Pope's cinematography emphasizes the point--by filming many of the songs in tight close-ups, we notice how artificial the makeup is and how strange an approximation of reality true theater is.

The film's formal elements also contribute to our understanding of the story. The lush set design and costumes add to the verisimilitude of the story but also highlight the artifice of a costume drama (no real-life colors are as vibrant as in this movie). And Leigh's intelligent use of rhyming--Sullivan opens the movie by rushing to the Savoy, while Gilbert is seen running from the theater near the end--force us to contemplate how each man used the theater to modify, appropriate and escape from the outside world. Even the film's confused gender dynamics are usefully thought-provoking.

At the end of the film, Gilbert remarks, "There is something inherently disappointing about success." That may generally be true, but there's nothing disappointing about Topsy-Turvy. Get your tickets now. 

J. Robert Parks 1/24/2000

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