Topsy-turvy (1999)

Mike Leigh’s first period drama is a witty reconstruction of the stormy relationship between W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan during the creation of ‘The Mikado’.

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“[Leigh] is a man of the theatre in every atom of his being, and that is why there is a direct connection between his work and G&S.”
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, 2000

Topsy-Turvy stands out in Mike Leigh’s canon for several reasons: it was his first period drama, and his first based on real-life events. Accordingly, his famous working methods were modified: instead of developing characters from scratch, his actors researched every scrap of information concerning the actual historical figures, which in the case of Charles Simon, who played Gilbert’s father, meant reading a prolific novelist’s entire output. But the results speak for themselves, far eclipsing Sidney Gilliat’s entertaining but comparatively superficial The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953) in bringing Victorian cultural legends to wholly convincing life. Jim Broadbent got most of the plaudits for his irascible Gilbert, but Allan Corduner’s Sullivan is equally well-observed (the actor’s own musical training paid rich dividends), and Timothy Spall’s veteran ham is heart-rending as his big set-piece is threatened with the axe during rehearsals. The lovingly-crafted period detail bagged Oscars for Best Costumes and Best Make-Up.

Leigh’s second excursion into period drama (albeit this time with fictional characters) was Vera Drake (2004). Jim Broadbent played another 19th century theatrical impresario in Moulin Rouge! (2001)

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