Mike Leigh's latest has its problems. There's its length, for one thing. Clocking in at a backside-torturing 139 minutes, it'll be up there with 2000's longest films. Now that isn't automatically a problem: Heat, Braveheart and Dances With Wolves were all eminently watchable, despite three-hour-plus running times. However, they all had narratives which cried out for the extra time. Topsy-Turvy doesn't.
For most of the first hour, the film thrashes about looking for a plot. The sick Sullivan recuperates in Europe, whinges on about writing himself a great opera and tries to escape his D'Olye Carte Theatre Company contract to supply words for Gilbert's latest "topsy turvy" fantasy.
It grates that all this is forgotten once Gilbert finally hits on the idea for The Mikado. Sullivan's objections inexplicably vanish, his health seems to repair itself in a flash, and the focus is switched to Gilbert. Leigh could have edited all this down to 20 minutes without his movie missing a step.
He could also have looked again at the amount of The Mikado he shows. After watching scenes be written and rehearsed (some of the sharpest and funniest moments), do we really need to watch them performed? They're beautifully staged, but by the end of the film all but the most ardent G&S fans could well feel a bit Mikado-ed out.
It's a real shame because, once you've pruned away all this padding, you're left with a pretty solid period piece. Beautiful to look at and often as funny as it is poignant, Topsy-Turvy boasts a handful of great supporting turns (with the consistently marvellous Mr Spall standing out) and a performance from Jim Broadbent which is simply brilliant. Broadbent paints WS Gilbert as a frighteningly complex man, as vulnerable as he is sarcastic, as detached from his emotions as he is governed by them. He's a potentially irritating bully who becomes a painfully tragic figure, and for whom success is a necessary burden rather than a blessing.
At times there is uncomprehending and real pain in Broadbent's eyes which goes way beyond the bounds of normal screen acting. If you can handle the running time, then this performance alone makes Topsy-Turvy worth turning up for.