On its surface, Topsy-Turvy is not the kind of film people expect from Mike Leigh, Britain’s auteur of loose-limbed social dramas and character comedies. Set in the world of London theater in the mid-1880s, the film tackles the creative partnership between W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the reigning kings of light operetta, at a turning in their career. Their latest show, “Princess Ida,” is a flop, at least by their standards. The team shows “symptoms of fatigue,” writes one critic, while a company actor remarks “I fear dear Mr. Gilbert has run out of ideas.” Composer Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is tired (both physically and creatively) of repeating the clichés of the populist genre and has ambitions to make his mark in grand opera. And librettist and lyricist Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), called the “king of topsy-turvydom” for his whimsical tales of magical transformations of ordinary lives (an all-too-accurate description that rankles the author), is in a rut that even he recognizes but can’t bring himself to admit.
Ostensibly a mix of historical biopic and backstage drama, Topsy-Turvy is ultimately a study in the act of creative collaboration, illustrated through the development a single production from inspiration through rehearsals to performance. And for all the period style and 19th century manners and generous scenes of Gilbert and Sullivan shows staged in their fullness, Leigh hasn’t changed his filmmaking style for this drama. Like his films before and after, he developed the script in collaboration with his actors, working out characters, scenes and dialogue based on is sketches and ideas. The result is a bright, densely-detailed delight of creative inspiration, theatrical soap opera and 19th century British culture, an Altman-esque canvas painted in the shades of Leigh’s own sensibility. Topsy-Turvy brings a freshness to the formality of 19th century decorum and conventions and an artist’s appreciation to the challenges of creative work and the dynamics of personality and creative strengths between collaborators.