A candidate for the most offbeat of all composer biopics, Mike Leigh’s first costumer details the artistic partnership of comic-opera team Gilbert and Sullivan and the making of their evergreen “The Mikado” in as exhaustive a look as most viewers will ever want. After 160 minutes full of entertaining acting, barbed Victorian wit and a generous sample of lavishly staged numbers from “Princess Ida,” “The Sorcerer” and “The Mikado,” this loving salute tends to lose dramatic focus in sheer historical detail. Game auds initially may be amassed from the ranks of theater and opera buffs, particularly in Britain, where it’s due to open in February, and the States, where it’s skedded for late-December release. Though widely pre-sold theatrically, this beautifully crafted and lively romp around the 1880s stage world should enjoy its longest life as a vid classic.
A surprising project for Brit helmer Leigh, a master of intimate British drama whose “Secrets & Lies” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1996, “Topsy-Turvy” exudes affection for and identification with its night-and-day artist-heroes, lyricist W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), irascible but as emotionless as a colonial general, and the expansive, pleasure-loving composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner), a European sophisticate pining to write serious opera. Gilbert’s inability to express the slightest feeling for his loving wife, Lucy (a sad, memorable Lesley Manville), or his elderly father, given to hallucinations (Charles Simon in a shock cameo), makes him the less appealing of the two. Yet a scene in which his imagination is set ablaze by a visit to a Japanese exhibit in London, or another in which he martially rehearses “Mikado” principals, essentially creating the modern-day role of the director, show his admirable artistic mettle.
First half of the film slowly builds up the atmosphere of 1884 London and the well-heeled men and women of the light-theater world, including producer Richard D’Oyly Carte, who built the Savoy Theater expressly for G&S, and his crisp business manager, Helen Lenoir (Wendy Nottingham). The flop of “Princess Ida” uncovers the public’s tiredness with the Gilbert and Sullivan formula. While Gilbert denies the evidence, Sir Arthur is ill enough to leave on a grand tour of Europe after announcing he will withdraw from writing operettas. He aspires to score real, human characters, not the “topsy-turvy” unreality of Gilbert’s magic potions.
The conflict between the two men gives the first hour its impetus and interest, lit up with a galaxy of characters gracefully and wittily revolving around them. Several musical numbers introduce the cast of actor-singers, who will be neatly individualized in pic’s second half.
Turning point comes thanks to the unflappable Mrs. Gilbert, who drags her husband to the seminal Japanese show, from whence the idea for “The Mikado” springs. The shock of contact with alien culture is powerful and amusing, carried forward in a delightful rehearsal of “Three Little Maids From School Are We,” complete with Japanese “models” for the actresses to imitate. From there Gilbert’s revolutionary idea of injecting “authenticity” is rehashed in overlong costume try-ons and rehearsals, which for all their period curiosity are about as interesting to watch as their contemporary equivalents.
Leigh’s affectionate sympathy for ordinary people, a hallmark of his movies, comes out in thumbnail portraits of the opera cast, which includes the excellent Timothy Spall, Martin Savage and Kevin McKidd as the male leads and the touching Shirley Henderson and Dorothy Atkinson as, respectively, singer and soubrette, each with her offstage problems and vices. Coached by musical director Gary Yershon, thesps sing all their own numbers with great showmanship. Between dress rehearsals and opening night (a triumph), a large part of “The Mikado” is performed in finely staged production numbers, making this one of the few biopics to actually show audiences the authors’ work.
Though ultimately pic creaks a little under the weight of massive historical research into its characters, a consistently persuasive cast keeps it alive and relevant to their modern-day stage and film descendants. Leigh’s regular cinematographer, Dick Pope, and production designer Eve Stewart give even dark, cramped, cluttered Victorian interiors a pleasingly modern harmony, in blatant contrast to the colorful, brightly lit fantasy world of the stage. Lindy Hemming’s costumes likewise underline the real-world/topsy-turvy divide. Craftsmanship is high throughout, stretching pic’s modest budget to look like a far more expensive production.