This past December the New York Film Critics Circle voted Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy the best movie of 1999 (Leigh also won best director). I mention this in part because I doubt you’ll see the British film winning the same accolades elsewhere this year. The Oscar givers, for example, seem more likely to give their Best Picture trophy to the contemporary, television-inflected American Beauty. In looking back over history it’s interesting to me how often and in which ways these bastions of East and West Coast film tastes have disagreed. In 1940, to cite a particularly emblematic year, the Academy chose John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley as the year’s best movie; the New York critics’ pick was Citizen Kane.

No, I’m not about to gloat that the critics’ judgments usually are the ones that turn out to be history’s (that would be something of a tautology, since critics are the ones who write the histories). Nor am I suggesting that Mike Leigh’s latest feature equals Orson Welles’ epochal debut. But the award they shared, almost five decades apart, points to a noteworthy connection between the films. Of all the U.S. groups that hand out film prizes, the New York Film Critics Circle, which does its voting in the Algonquin Hotel, a stone’s throw from the marquees of Broadway, is easily the most attuned to the traditions and influence of the theater. Citizen Kane, a film that essentially picked up Welles’ New York theater career and plopped it down on RKO’s Hollywood soundstages, is one testament to the crucial link between cinema and theater. Topsy-Turvy is another.

Of course, there are countless movies that derive from or attempt to pay tribute to theater that simply give new life to the pejorative “stagey.” Topsy-Turvy is one of the striking exceptions, like Kane, that honors both forms by making something truly cinematic out of its theatrical roots and fascinations. Which is another way of saying that it is not only about a particular form of theater, namely the delightful musical confections of Gilbert and Sullivan; by metaphorical extension, it’s also about the movies.

For those who know Mike Leigh’s movies, though, this one comes as a decided surprise. As High Hopes, Life Is Sweet, Naked, Secret & Lies and the others attest, Leigh heretofore has been strictly interested in the contemporary face of British life. And the left-wing, class-war bias of his invariably rueful comedies has been so pronounced that it was hard to imagine a Leigh film without a sneering attitude toward anyone with an Oxbridge accent or a bank account. And yet here he is crafting a valentine for 19th-century England’s witty and successful masters of the comic opera.

It’s perhaps not as entirely anomalous as it seems when you factor in that Leigh has always been interested in the processes that underlie the creation of his art, especially the work of actors. He has famously made his movies by means of an unusually close collaboration with actors: He assembles his companies with only the sketchiest ideas for a film’s dramatic basis, then evolves the characters and, eventually, the script during months of improvisation, rehearsal and revision. In small, idiosyncratic films like Naked and Life Is Sweet, such a method makes a certain amount of conceptual sense, and its results have been appealingly intimate and idiomatic. That Leigh made a large-scale historical film–with singers and orchestra!–in the same way is fairly astonishing. Yet so he did, and not only can you not tell it, but the results are, again, uniquely pungent and persuasive.

Topsy-Turvy opens in 1884. The collaborations of lyricist W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) have already made them the toast of the London stage. The previous decade produced a string of gems, including HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance. But now comes Princess Ida. Sullivan, in a hilariously kinetic scene, drags himself from his sickbed and dashes to the Savoy Theatre to conduct for the opening night. He might not have bothered. The reviews Gilbert reads the next morning are respectful, but they opine that the duo’s approach to their familiar comic realm, that mirthful world of “Topsy-Turvy,” has become a bit too rote, formulaic, predictable.

Such opinions themselves are not trouble. But the fact that Gilbert grumbles at them while Sullivan seems as though he rather agrees–that‘s trouble. Or at least, the seriocomic beginning of it.

Of all recent films of real substance and originality, Topsy-Turvy perhaps least needs a plot summary. As his working method described above might suggest, Mike Leigh is not about plot. Topsy-Turvy begins with the opening of a not particularly successful Gilbert and Sullivan opera and ends, more than a year later, with the premiere of one of their most ambitious and innovative works, The Mikado. What we see in between, dramatized via what’s more a series of connected vignettes than a tightly wound narrative, might be described as an essay on the realpolitik of artistic creation: the anxiety and the contingency, the dependence on maddening vagaries such as personality and fashion and sheer, elusive serendipity.

How do artists ever manage to collaborate? That question seems the conceptual alpha and omega of Topsy-Turvy, and it’s focused first on two artists who seem more like opposites than complements. Gilbert, the more ample and relaxed of the two, lives as a comfortable bourgeois with his endlessly supportive wife Lucy (Leslie Manville), and only wants to further his success by continuing to refine his craft. Sharp-tempered, aristocratic and bolstered by an astute, worldly mistress (Eleanor David), Sullivan has grown impatient with craft and comedy. He wants art–a serious and tragic grand opera ideally, with or without Gilbert.

The film concerns itself first and foremost with this legendary partnership, yet one of the shrewdest things about Topsy-Turvy is that it rarely shows us Gilbert and Sullivan together. If memory serves, there’s only one scene where we see the two having a substantive conversation about their work–and it’s a querulous exchange in which Sullivan derides Gilbert’s famous Topsy-Turvydom to the point of crushing his partner’s feelings and sense of artistic purpose.

Can art possibly come from such acrid negativity? Funny thing, Topsy-Turvy suggests, it can and does: Real progress results as much from objection and obstruction as from industry and agreement. Sullivan’s words sting, but they also kick the props from under Gilbert’s trusty formula and prompt him toward the inspiration that sparks the catalytic departure of The Mikado.

What goes for the two also goes for the many. Besides focusing on the divergent personalities of Gilbert and Sullivan and their significant others, Topsy-Turvy also gives us a group portrait of the company of singer-actors they work with. They’re like a family, of course, and like most families contain a large measure of dysfunction. Their number includes druggies, depressives and prima donnas. Though the mood of their work has frequent moments of levity and bantering comradeship (as well as onstage brilliance), the prevailing feelings are those of private worry, day-to-day toil and incremental professional striving. Which isn’t glamorous fun or juicily melodramatic in the manner of other backstage musicals, but gives us finally a picture of artistic working-together that’s uncommonly detailed and richly, thoroughly convincing.

The scenes that prove especially striking and memorable all touch on the most sensitive moments of the collaborative arc. In one–an astonishing tour de force of ensemble acting–Gilbert instructs his singers how to act and move “Japanese” for The Mikado. In the film’s climactic passage, the singers rise up as one and demand that he restore to the score an excised song.

The main reason such moments come across so incandescently is that they mirror and build upon Mike Leigh’s own career-long obsession with forging an unusually genuine and creative bond with his casts. As a grand payoff for such concern, the acting in Topsy-Turvy is little short of spectacular. Beyond the amazing Broadbent, a Leigh regular; Corduner, a newcomer to the director’s company, and the women who play their romantic counterparts, the film has a spate of terrific work by other actors, including Ron Cook (as Richard D’Oyly Carte), Timothy Spall, Kevin McKidd, Wendy Nottingham, Shirley Henderson, Dorothy Atkinson and Martin Savage. Incidentally, as G&S did, Leigh cast actors who could sing (rather than vice versa), and they sing all their numbers live in the film.

Leigh’s collective, improvisation-based working method also has distinctive implications for the film’s visual style. Often, a scene is comprised of a single shot, and individual shots run to unusual length, with the camera remaining static and at a discreet distance from the action. This isn’t primarily meant to give the movie a theatrical feel (although it does that too) but rather to give the actors full rein within the frame. The effect is oddly “enabling” for the viewer as well, yet at a time when most filmgoers are accustomed to having their gaze relentlessly controlled, by camera movements and compositions and various other means, I wonder if the visual freedom Leigh allows will be appreciated.

Let’s hope so, because it’s part of a gorgeous package that, thanks to Dick Pope’s gorgeous photography (which ingeniously recalls the luxuriance of Whistler and Sargent), Eve Stewart’s production design and Lindy Hemming’s costumes, brings to palpable life the visual textures of London stage life in the era of Queen Victoria.

And then there’s the music. With its generous and exuberantly staged musical numbers, Topsy-Turvy will be pure catnip for Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados. What about the rest of us? I’ll say this: My own musical interests are almost exclusively bound to the era of rock ‘n’ roll and I found the film’s musical aspects entirely captivating. Beyond the skill and sheer bravado of the performances, Sullivan’s tunefulness and Gilbert’s lyrics have a peculiarly English wit that’s evidently continued down the years, to the Beatles, Bowie, Oasis and many others. Surprisingly or not, one of G&S’s most vociferous recent partisans has been the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten.

The year’s best movie? You decide that, but don’t miss Mike Leigh’s magical mystery tour of the wondrous world of Topsy-Turvydom. EndBlock