Topsy-Turvy is a musical drama film about the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado in 1884 and 1885. It was written and directed by Mike Leigh and stars Allan Corduner as Sir Arthur Sullivan and Jim Broadbent as W. S. Gilbert, along with Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville. The film focuses on the creative conflict between playwright and composer, and the momentous decision that the two men made to continue their partnership, which led to the creation of several more famous Savoy Operas between them.
The film was not released widely, but it received very favourable reviews, including a number of film festival awards and two design Academy Awards. While considered an artistic success, illustrating Victorian era British life in the theatre in depth, the film did not recover its production costs. Leigh cast actors who did their own singing in the film, and the singing performances were faulted by some critics, while others lauded Leigh's strategy.
Gilbert's idea for their next opera features a transformative magic lozenge, which Sullivan feels is repetitive, since it is similar to the story of The Sorcerer, and mechanical, due to its reliance on a supernatural device. Sullivan, under pressure to write more serious music, says he longs for something that is "probable" and involves "human interest", and not dependent on magic. Gilbert sees nothing wrong with his libretto and refuses to write a new one, which results in a stand-off. The impasse is resolved after Gilbert and his wife visit a popular exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts. When the katana sword that he purchased there falls noisily off the wall of his study, he is inspired to write a libretto set in exotic Japan. Sullivan likes the idea and agrees to compose the music for it.
Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte work to make The Mikado a success, and many glimpses of rehearsals and stressful backstage preparations for the show follow: Cast members lunch together before negotiating their salaries. Gilbert brings in Japanese girls from the exhibition to teach the ladies' chorus how to walk and use fans in the Japanese manner. The principal cast react to the fittings of their costumes designed by the famous costumier C. Wilhelm. The entire cast object to the proposed cut of the title character's Act Two solo, "A more humane Mikado". The actors face first-night jitters in their dressing rooms. Finally The Mikado is ready to open. As usual, Gilbert is too nervous to watch the opening performance and paces the streets of London. Returning to the theatre, however, he finds that the new opera is a resounding success.
The film also accurately depicts the Savoy Theatre as having electric lighting. It was the first public building in Britain – and at the time one of the few buildings there of any kind – to be lit entirely by electricity. The film also shows an early use of the telephone. However, the depiction of the Gilberts' marriage as cold and loveless is at odds with the available historical evidence. W. S. Gilbert wrote many affectionate letters to his wife "Kitty", and the couple was very socially active both in London and at their home at Grim's Dyke, often holding dinner parties and being invited to others' homes for dinner.
The film also won Best Make Up/Hair at the BAFTA Awards, and was nominated for Best British Film, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Jim Broadbent), Best Supporting Actor (Timothy Spall) and Best Original Screenplay. Broadbent also won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival, and the film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the same festival.
Topsy Turvy also won the Best British Film Award at the Evening Standard British Film Awards, and received 1999 awards for Best Picture (shared with Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich) and Best Director from the National Society of Film Critics, and for Best Picture and Best Director from the New York Film Critics Circle.