When Topsy-Turvy was released in 1999, director Mike Leigh seemed like the last candidate to produce a biopic on Gilbert and Sullivan, given his career-long focus on intimately evoking the struggles of contemporary working-class Brits. Yet the film, one of his best, is also his most artistically revealing, forming a bridge between the collaborative process that brought Gilbert and Sullivan’s masterpiece The Mikado to life, and the rigors that go into Leigh’s own work. Where most artist biopics make the mistake of covering the entire span of their subjects’ lives and favoring personal histories over creative ones, Topsy-Turvy locks into the conception and execution of a single work, and covers it with the fastidiousness and astonishing attention to detail expected of any Leigh production. Though the focus necessarily forbids a fuller picture of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lives together and apart, it’s a vivid snapshot of a pivotal moment for them, and it captures in essence what a broader film might miss in the sprawl.
Remarkably, Leigh withholds even the germ of the idea for The Mikado until halfway through his sprawling 160-minute film, using the time to establish the Gilbert and Sullivan’s strained partnership and artistic crises, the operating woes of their D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and the bric-a-brac of Victorian England. That may sound like wheel-spinning, or a failure of economy, but Leigh and his cast and crew bring the era to life with a level of specificity that’s uncommon in historical films of any stripe. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner are both superb as librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, who face the threat of creative stasis when their latest production, Princess Ida, opens to lackluster box office and merely respectful notices. The two seem content to move on, but their contractual obligations to D’Oyly Carte keep them on the hook until Gilbert’s wife (Lesley Manville) drags him to a Japanese cultural exhibit and inspiration strikes.
The remainder of Topsy-Turvy goes deep into the joys and agonies of putting on a show, top to bottom, from the earliest stages of inception to rehearsal to the big premiere. Given an altogether different milieu to create from scratch, Leigh’s typically obsessive small-scale focus pays off in the complicated musical numbers and the tiniest minutiae, including a hilarious running theme on the technological gizmos of the mid-1880s. The personal and professional stakes are high, and Leigh integrates them beautifully into the immense effort it takes to mount a production of The Mikado’s scale. Most biopics about artists think their personal lives reveal something about them; Topsy-Turvy proves that their work says more.
Sold separately from Topsy-Turvy, the 1939 Hollywood version of The Mikado was the first Gilbert and Sullivan production to make it to the screen, and it used many of the performers from the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company to ensure a smooth transition. While the material is still stagebound—Leigh, in a terrific interview included among the special features, talks about Gilbert’s genius for thinking within single stage settings—the lavish sets and gorgeous Technicolor cinematography elevate it just a hair above a filmed play. And Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera still stands as a funny, irreverent send-up of government buffoonery, using its exotic setting to take potshots at leaders closer to home. At times, it seems a painted mustache away from being a Marx brothers movie.
Key features: On Topsy-Turvy, Leigh contributes a dense, illuminating commentary track and converses with his musical director Gary Yershon; the disc also includes deleted scenes and Leigh’s 1992 short film “A Sense Of History,” starring Broadbent. The Mikado has that 18-minute interview with Leigh, who seems to remember every frame of that movie. There’s also a 1926 silent promotional short for a staging of The Mikado by D’Oyly Carte, and excerpts from modified radio broadcasts like The Swing Mikado and The Hot Mikado.