Mike Leigh’s ‘Topsy-Turvy’ is a visual and aural feast

“Whatever you do, do NOT refer to this film as a musical.” That was the proclamation of British filmmaker Mike Leigh when “Topsy-Turvy” was screened at the New York Film Festival.

True, there are large-scale musical numbers, but these set pieces are there to illustrate and, in some cases, advance the plot. Instead, what Leigh has achieved is the most successful integration of theatrical production numbers and comedy-drama since Bob Fosse tackled “Cabaret” in the early 1970s. And like that movie, “Topsy-Turvy” is also set during a period of upheaval, although one more subtly portrayed.

Fans of Leigh‘s “social surrealism” (best demonstrated in the Oscar-nominated “Secrets & Lies” and the critically acclaimed “Life Is Sweet” and “Naked”) will be in for a bit of a shock. In attempting his first large-scale period piece, the writer-director focuses not on the proletariat but on a turning point in the collaboration between bon vivant Sir Arthur Sullivan (a fine Alan Corduner) and the dour William S. Gilbert (an appropriately irascible Jim Broadbent).

The Victorian era mores were beginning to loosen, and Leigh slyly depicts this through Sullivan’s relationship with the married Fanny Ronalds (Eleanor David), in some cast members’ objections to loose-fitting costumes that press the boundaries of propriety, and by introducing technological innovations such as a reservoir pen and the telephone.

What is perhaps most impressive about this film, however, is that Leigh once again employed his tried and true methods of improvisations with the cast before actually writing the script. Despite the confines of historical fact, he has managed to craft an intriguing if overstuffed jewel box of a film. Some will carp over its split between biopic and backstage drama, while others may feel there are too many asides.

If Leigh has a weakness as a director, it is that he tends to include extraneous material. In “Topsy-Turvy,” there are several such instances. On the other hand, Leigh is not a self-indulgent filmmaker; those added sequences are there either to provide background or to give a particular actor a moment. Still, there is a shapeless feel to the material, as if burdened with an excess of riches, Leigh felt he had to include it all.

The plot conflict arises from Sullivan’s desire to compose loftier work than the popular operettas for which he became renowned. He voices his concerns that Gilbert (rankled by being called the “king of topsy-turvy” by the august Times of London) is repeating himself, and the pair is at loggerheads over fulfilling their contract with the Savoy Theatre. Through happenstance, Gilbert hits upon an idea that develops into “The Mikado,” which rejuvenates their creative partnership.

On this rather slight outline, Leigh and company hang a visually and aurally beautiful film. Cinematographer Dick Pope bathed the film in crisp, clean lighting, lending it the look of history come alive, while production designer Eve Stewart crafted astonishingly detailed interiors and Lindy Hemming designed strikingly colorful costumes.

For the members of the D’Oyly Carte company, Leigh specifically hired actors who could sing. Among the more notable are Kevin McKidd, Jessie Bond, Timothy Spall and Martin Savage. While all of the actors turn in fine work, special note must also be made of Lesley Manville, whose heartbreaking performance as Gilbert’s neglected wife gives the film some added dimension.

For those who prefer a more straightforward and comprehensive biographical film about the duo, they should check out 1953’s “The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan” with Robert Morley and Maurice Evans. Those interested in a leisurely, if slightly meandering, but well-acted depiction of creativity filtered through Gilbert and Sullivan should check out “Topsy-Turvy.”

* MPAA rating: R, for a scene of risque nudity.

“Topsy Turvy”

Jim Broadbent: William S. Gilbert Allan Corduner: Arthur Sullivan Dexter Fletcher: Louis Suki Smith: Clothilde Wendy Nottingham: Helen Lenoir

A USA presentation. Director Mike Leigh. Screenplay Mike Leigh. Producer Simon Channing-Williams. Director of photography Dick Pope. Editor Robin Sales. Music Carl Davis and Arthur Sullivan. Production designer Eve Stewart. Costume designer Linda Hemming. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.