Cinema: Topsy-Turvy

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STARRING: Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner DIRECTOR: Mike Leigh OPENS: Dec. 24

It's 1884, and Gilbert and Sullivan need a hit. Princess Ida is just not doing the sort of business they're used to. But Sullivan (Corduner) wants to write something more serious than comic operettas. And Gilbert (Broadbent) keeps trying to recycle stale story lines that his collaborator (and the critics) dismiss.

Their solution to this problem--based on Gilbert's chance encounter with Japanese culture at a London exhibition--turns out to be The Mikado. And Mike Leigh's movie about mounting that best of all G. & S. works turns out to be one of the year's more beguiling surprises. It is not at all the sort of thing one expects from Leigh, the very sober creator of films like Naked and Secrets and Lies, for it is basically the story--somewhat comic, somewhat desperate, very carefully detailed--of rehearsing and putting on the operetta.

What gives Topsy-Turvy its heartfelt heft is the way in which it shows how this process takes over everyone's life--eventually driving out all distractions, whether they be Gordon's defeat at Khartoum, the sterilities of Gilbert's marriage or the many anxious neuroses of the acting company. It is show biz as therapy, with all tensions temporarily resolved when the show is a hit. But there is also a sense of real, very Mike Leighish, life in this film that darkens and transforms it. And transfixes us.