Director: Mike Leigh

[B]Topsy-Turvy[/B] surprises on two counts....

Topsy-Turvy surprises on two counts. For those who assume Mike Leigh movies generally involve humorously dysfunctional working-class characters mumbling inconsequentially to one another on unsparingly bleak council estates, this rich 19th-century period piece will come as unexpected.

Then there’s its subject matter – the light operas of Gilbert And Sullivan. For most people, these evoke tortuous memories of endlessly bad Two Ronnies parodies and large-scale amateur-dramatics productions organised by dotty spinsters. And if Mike Leigh doesn’t quite manage to convince sceptics that these operettas are worth another look, he certainly provides an absorbing, hilarious insight into the backstage workings and brittle characters involved in their production.

Topsy-Turvy homes in on the year 1884, with William Gilbert (Broadbent) huffing and fuming over a notice for his new opera, Princess Ida, which proves to be a flop. Arthur Sullivan (Corduner), meanwhile, yearns to compose more ‘serious’ work and is increasingly scornful of his partner’s spurious plotlines involving magic potions, magic trousers and so forth. The pair are at odds but also under contract to Strand impresario D’Oyly Carte to produce another opera. Then Gilbert visits a Japanese exhibition, and the notion for The Mikado is hatched…

Broadbent is a splendid Gilbert, not quite as stuffy and impervious to the rest of the world as he sometimes seems, and Timothy Spall and Kevin McKidd are especially fine as a couple of preposterously powdered, plummy proto-luvvies. Though Leigh insists the dialogue is as improvised as ever, it provides a rich fountain of elegantly turned Wildean epigrams: “The more I learn of men, the more I admire dogs,” and “There’s something inherently disappointing about success.”

Yet beneath all the theatrical make-up there are streaks of vulnerability – in Sullivan’s illness, in the hallucinations of Gilbert’s father, and most movingly (and recognisably Leigh-esque), the closing speech given by Gilbert’s neglected wife Kitty to her husband. At 160 minutes, Topsy-Turvy is a touch long, but no-one makes time drag quite so entertainingly as Mike Leigh.

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