Director: Mike Leigh
Adaptation: Mike Leigh
Stars: Allan Corduner (Arthur Sullivan), Jim Broadbent (William Schwenk Gilbert), Lesley Manville (Lucy "Kitty" Gilbert), Ron Cook (Richard D’Oyly Carte), Timothy Spall (Richard Temple), Wendy Nottingham (Helen Lenoir), Kevin McKidd (Durward Lely)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1999
Country: U.K.
Topsy-Turvy Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Topsy-TurvyMike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy is a visually sumptuous film about the last phase of the partnership between William Schwenk Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the respective lyricist and composer who, from 1871 to 1896, wrote 14 operettas that ruled the London theater and are still among the most highly praised musical productions ever staged.

When the story opens in 1884, things are not looking good for the celebrated, immensely popular G&S. Their most recent operetta, Princess Ida, has been something of a flop, and Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is beginning to feel that he has not fulfilled his full musical potential. Simply put, he is tired of writing catchy music to Gilbert’s comical stories of “topsy-turvydom,” stories that are essentially comic fluff that always rely on a contrivance to see them through. Sullivan wants to compose something grand and new--something important. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), in his own staunchly bull-headed way, does not understand, therefore he cannot fathom why Sullivan refuses to write music to his latest story, which unsurprisingly is about a magic potion. Additionally, G&S are under pressure to produce a new work because they are under contract to do so with Richard D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook), the man who built the Savoy, a theater dedicated to their operettas. Lightning strikes when Gilbert’s wife, Kitty (Leslie Manville), convinces him to go with her to a Japanese cultural exhibit. Impressed by the exotic Japanese way of life, Gilbert is inspired to write The Mikado, which Sullivan sees as enough of a departure from their usual routine that he agrees to write the music, and the rest of the film details the inner workings by which The Mikado is brought to life on-stage.

Topsy-Turvy was written and directed by Mike Leigh, and at first this might seem like an odd choice of material for a director whose previous films, such as Naked (1993) and Secrets & Lies (1996), focused primarily on turmoil in modern British life. However, Leigh spent his early years working in the theater, and his passion for it is obvious. He brings a unique eye to Topsy-Turvy, and his strict attention to detail and his uncommon method of involving his actors in the creative process of forming the script (he calls this process “organic”) infuses life into material that could have easily become another stiff, British period production. The film is filled with tiny details, from the meticulous set design to the wonderful costumes (which won an Oscar for designer Lindy Hemming). Life in Victorian England is brought to vivid, colorful life, but the time and place never overwhelm the characters.

Much of the film’s success hinges on the two main characters, and Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner make Gilbert and Sullivan into rich, fascinating people. Broadbent, who wrote and starred in Leigh’s shockingly hilarious 30-minute British TV film A Sense of History in 1992, makes Gilbert introverted and obstinate. Sullivan, whose short stature and thin frame makes him the physical inverse of Gilbert, is just as obstinate, although his social liberality and aspirations to greatness make it obvious why he needed a partner like Gilbert.

Leigh’s screenplay is sharp and amusing, filled with witty dialogue and keen observances about life in late 19th-century London. The form of the screenplay is loose, allowing for the plot to come to literal standstills so that entire numbers from G&S operettas can be staged in the front of the camera (Leigh wisely understands that G&S’s work must be allowed to speak for itself). The films develops its own flow and rhythm, and these musical interruptions do not so much delay the narrative as they enlighten our understanding of the characters and what they accomplished. After all, how could one possible make a film about Gilbert and Sullivan without paying their greatest achievements--the operettas themselves--the proper respect?

Topsy-Turvy Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Topsy-Turvy is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.78:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Audio commentary by writer/director Mike Leigh
  • Video conversation between Leigh and musical director, Gary Yershon
  • A Sense of History, 1992 short film directed by Mike Leigh
  • Deleted scenes
  • Featurette
  • Theatrical trailer
  • TV spots
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film critic Amy Taubin
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMarch 29, 2011

    Criterion presents Topsy-Turvy in a new, high-definition director-approved digital transfer that was supervised by cinematographer Dick Pope. Framed at 1.78:1, the transfer came from a 35mm interpositive, and it beautifully renders the film’s rich, deeply textured imagery, allowing us to truly appreciate all the detail that went into the wonderful set and costume design. The theatrical scenes are especially rewarding, with vibrant reds and shimmering gold, all of which are reproduced with great contrast and fine detail, but without losing a filmlike essence. Likewise, the DTS-HD Master Audio surround soundtrack is clear and precise. The low frequency effects channel and the surround speakers are not given a lot of work to do (most of the film is dialogue). However, this is not the case in the operetta scenes, when the soundtrack envelops the viewer in Sullivan’s bold melodies. Music plays a huge role in the film, and the soundtrack gives G&S their due.
    Writer/director Mike Leigh’s audio commentary is a great listen; he gives plenty of background information about the production, but also draws your attention to historical details you might otherwise overlook (he is also very generous in noting the contributions of his collaborators, particularly cinematographer Dick Pope). In addition to the commentary, Leigh also appears in a 37-minute video conversation with musical director Gary Yershon, in which they discuss the works of Gilbert and Sullivan and the challenge of translating them to the screen. Criterion has also dug into Leigh’s filmography and included his hilariously droll short film A Sense of History, which was made for British television in 1992. Written by and starring Jim Broadbent, it is a faux documentary in which Broadbent’s haughty 23rd Earl of Letee takes a film crew on a wintry tour of his ancestral estate and slowly but surely reveals the depths of his depravity. There are also four deleted scenes that were cut not due to quality, but in order to reduce the film’s running time. These include two completely cut scenes, a longer version of the brothel scene, and the deleted song “If Patriotic Sentiment is Wanted,” and all were culled from a video work copy of the film. From the 2000 DVD we get a 10-minute featurette that includes interviews with Leigh and his actors discussing Leigh’s fascinating “organic” approach to filmmaking. The disc is rounded out with a theatrical trailer and a selection of TV spots.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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