Yes, it weighs in at a whopping 161 minutes, and yes, it’s a complete departure from what one expects from a Mike Leigh film (which may explain why it’s my favorite of his works). But this biopic of W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner, The White Countess) is probably the best film of 1999—and one of the least seen. In truth, it’s less a biography of Gilbert and Sullivan than a character study of the duo set against the flop of their newest show, Princess Ida, and the creation of their finest work, The Mikado. Leigh seems to have instinctively understood something that escapes too many creators of biopics—you can’t stuff a whole life (in this case, two lives) into a couple hours and do it (them) service. A much better plan is to try to get to the essence of the characters in a confined space of time (flashbacks are optional, though these don’t appear to interest Leigh).
Topsy-Turvy (the title referring to the wordplay of Gilbert’s lyrics) relies very heavily on the tropes of the biographical film—the flop, followed by the partnership breakup, followed by the sudden inspiration for a new show etc.—and it’s as likely as not to go with legend over fact (the whole Japanese Exhibition inspiration business is historically dubious). But that just might be why it works. Leigh is apparently in love with the theater for its own sake—every aspect of it—and theater is nothing if not the stuff of legend. Few, if indeed any, films give over so much time to the production of a play. A bit more than half of Topsy-Turvy concerns staging The Mikado. And, if anything, you’re left wanting more. The sense of a work of art coming to life has rarely been more beautifully or excitingly portrayed, while the reproduction of the original production is nothing short of perfect. This is a film not to be missed.