It turns out that in his heart of hearts, Mike Leigh is a Victorian. This wouldn't come as so much of a surprise if he hadn't made his name with films like "Meantime" (1983) and "High Hopes" (1988), bittersweet comedies about the hardscrabble existence of the British underclass during Margaret Thatcher's reign.
But in "Topsy-Turvy," writer-director Leigh shows himself to be remarkably at home in the company of Gilbert and Sullivan, whose very English operettas ("The Pirates of Penzance," "H.M.S. Pinafore") remain musical-theater staples.
Leigh opens the film in 1884, when the lucrative partnership of the rigid and priggish William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and impish libertine Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is on shaky ground. Although he's quite content to live the high life that their crowd-pleasing comic diversions have provided, Sullivan believes he has more serious and important work to do than provide music to the "topsy-turvy" librettos Gilbert concocts with clockwork precision. But this crisis is short-lived. A visit to a London exhibit of Japanese art and culture jumpstarts Gilbert's imagination, and soon he's hard at work on "The Mikado" with a newly enthused Sullivan.
Although scenes from their shows take up a fair amount of screen time, the bulk of "Topsy-Turvy" is devoted to portraying the rehearsal process in excruciating detail. Gilbert cajoles while Sullivan encourages; costume fittings for the exotic kimonos become rife with petty bickering; and Leigh regularly turns a one-joke situation into an extended scene.
At a very leisurely 160 minutes, "Topsy-Turvy" forces viewers to adjust their internal clocks to the slower pace and sensibility of a different era. In fact, this is the most genteel of movies. Even the camera retains a polite distance from the proceedings -- medium and long shots are the rule, with close-ups rare.
In so closely mirroring the Victorian sensibility, Leigh has succeeded in draining the emotional life out of "Topsy-Turvy." His best film, "Secrets and Lies" (1996), sought to reconcile the tumultuous inner lives of his characters with their carefully constructed facades through the revelation of long-buried truths. Thematically, "Topsy-Turvy" is the polar opposite: a celebration of a corseted culture proudly maintaining its stiff upper lip.