'Topsy-Turvy' is true to a legendary team

Gilbert and Sullivan rank with the most legendary teams in the history of musical theater. But their lives weren't always as smooth as the operettas that flowed from their pens during their glory days in the late 19th century.

Sullivan was especially perplexed by the confines of success. Would he ever be able to escape the world of light, frolicsome entertainment and compose the serious music he dreamed of? How could he renew his artistic freshness when an enthusiastic public kept clamoring for more of the same old thing?

Mike Leigh may have been mulling over the same question. He has written and directed a string of acclaimed movies such as "Naked" and "Secrets & Lies" that explore the harshness of modern working-class life, often with a strong dose of political anger.

But his beautiful new picture, "Topsy-Turvy," takes a different tack. It etches a vivid portrait of Gilbert and Sullivan as they enjoy professional acclaim, wrestle with private doubts, quarrel with one another, and manage to create "The Mikado" despite all these distractions.

This departure in subject matter is mirrored by lush camera work by cinematographer Dick Pope, who normally captures an expressive grittiness that suits Leigh's alternately sad and ferocious characters.

In other ways, though, the Leigh technique is very much in evidence. The movie was built from the ground up in his usual manner - starting not with a polished script but with a basic idea, a lot of research, and improvisation by the actors, from which the final plot and dialogue were developed. This helps account for the passionate conviction of the acting by the cast.

And what a cast it is. Jim Broadbent ("Bullets Over Broadway," "The Crying Game") gives one of his most perfectly tuned performances as William Schwenk Gilbert, and Allan Corduner is equally adept as Arthur Sullivan, the more discontented member of the team. Excellent support comes from Leigh veterans Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville, among many others.

"Topsy-Turvy" is neither as light nor as G-rated as Gilbert and Sullivan's own works. It's a lengthy film - one of the few recent movies to more than justify its leisurely running time - and it takes quick but graphic glimpses at surprisingly dark secrets in the lives of its heroes and their creative partners, related to matters like sex and drug use.

This is a mark of the movie's seriousness, though. It would have been easy for Leigh and company to cook up a souffl as airy as "The Mikado" itself - and its somber moments are an essential part of its fidelity to the time, place, and people it depicts. One of the year's very best pictures, it's sure to find a wide audience and a lot of nods at Oscar time.

*Rated R; contains nudity, drug use, and other adult subject matter.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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