USA Films // 1999 // 160 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // June 23rd, 2000
Laughter. Tears. Curtain.
Topsy-Turvy is writer/director Mike Leigh's film about that Victorian Odd Couple, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the making of one of their greatest triumphs, "The Mikado."
Topsy-Turvy is a wonderfully droll and joyous film that joins a very select list of movies about the theater that includes Jean Renior's 1955 classic French Cancan (oh how I long for our friends at Criterion to do this film for DVD), and Bob Fosse's crowning achievement, All That Jazz.
Along with the talents of production designer Eve Stewart, art director Helen Scott, Academy Award winning costume designer Lindy Hemming, cinematographer Dick Pope and so many more, writer/director Mike Leigh and his team look at what goes into the creation of art from, quite literally, nothing. The sum total of their efforts is, simply, magical.
One of the amazing things about Topsy-Turvy is at a running time of 160 minutes the movie never drags or seems drawn out. This is also from a movie that does not get its central plot moving until almost an hour into its running time. Pretty amazing to look at a clock and realize how much time has gone by. Just goes to show that a great movie is always just the right length no matter how much time goes by.
Using six months of rehearsal time, Mike Leigh built his movie from the ground up. He has his cast so involved in the film and in their roles that they seem to inhabit the parts they play. For such a period movie the film is alive with a sense of immediacy that is rarely seen in modern cinema.
Performances are tiptop from the leads to the smallest supporting role. As William Schwenk Gilbert, Jim Broadbent (Little Voice, Bullets Over Broadway, Brazil) is a wonder. Prim, proper and oh so reserved, Broadbent's Gilbert is prickly to be sure but he well conveys the thunderstruck quality of when inspiration hits. The moment he realizes the plot of what will become the "Mikado" is a highlight of the film.
As Gilbert's opposite, Allan Corduner (Joe Gould's Secret, Fat Man And Little Boy, Talk Radio) is life and joy as Arthur Sullivan. Very much the yin to Gilbert's yang, these two men could not be any more different but together they would form a partnership whose popularity is still present today. Written across Corduner's face is the sheer joy of creating, the pride of having your work performed and enjoyed. Together Broadbent and Corduner give two of the best performances seen in 1999.
There is so much great acting that it is hard to single out other individual performers but special mention must be made of Lesley Manville as "Kitty" Gilbert. Strong, supportive and lonely, Manville is a wonder to behold. Along with Samantha Morton in Sweet And Lowdown, it is the strongest work from a supporting actress last year and probably the most overlooked.
On the disc side of things, USA continues to impress with strong work. The picture is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is given an anamorphic transfer that shines. Leigh has the screen so filled that I cannot even imagine what a pan and scan version would look like. Colors are vibrant but never over saturated. Flesh tones are lifelike with a pleasing glow to them. Detail is quite strong with blacks and shadows being rock solid, showing no signs of pixel breakup. The print used is in pristine shape and shows no flaws. Topsy-Turvy has one of the strongest images I have yet seen on a DVD and one that I will use to show off to friends.
There are two soundtracks. One is a Dolby Surround 2 channel mix, but the one I listened to is the Dolby Digital 5.1. It's a subtle yet very active mix. Surrounds are used on a limited but effective basis with most of the dialogue and glorious music coming from the front three speakers. The soundtrack is well balanced and approaches reference quality. Everything sounds clear with no distortion or background hiss. This is a movie to crank up and enjoy.
Extras are on the light side. There is a short featurette that merely serves as a warm-up to more. The theatrical trailer is here as are television spots. The disc also has a photo gallery and for the Gilbert and Sullivan novice, there is a written section giving a brief history on the two men.
USA is doing wonderful work on the production of their discs that puts them on par with any of the other big names in the world of DVD. That said, the one thing separating USA from the upper tier of DVD producers such as Universal, Dreamworks, Columbia/TriStar and Anchor Bay is a serious commitment to supplemental material. If ever a film begged for Special Edition treatment it's Topsy-Turvy. I can easily imagine sitting through an hour's worth of footage on the making of the Oscar-winning costume designs but it is nowhere to be found. Where is a commentary track with director Mike Leigh and his erudite cast? What about some footage of the six months worth of rehearsals that went into the film? How about material from the recording studio where the cast recorded the soundtrack and then watching it matched in actual filming? An isolated soundtrack would have been very cool as well. I could go at this for hours but I'm sure you get the idea. So USA, step up to the plate, I'm dying to see you hit one out of the park.
Topsy-Turvy is a wonderful film about life in the theater and two men whose legacy is still relevant to this day. It is funny, moving and quite entertaining. To the movie's credit it never takes itself too seriously and you don't have to be a Gilbert and Sullivan fan to enjoy the proceedings.
1999 looks more and more like the strongest year for film in almost 20 years and Topsy-Turvy is one of the best of the batch.
For me this is a solid purchase. If you don't believe me, give it a shot via rental. Just don't make me tell you I told you so when you find yourself picking it up for your personal library. It's a film I plan on coming back to, many times. For me that is the highest recommendation I can hand out.
Mike Leigh, cast and crew are all acquitted. USA is thanked for a beautiful looking and sounding disc but are asked by the court to spend more time and effort in the extras department. Otherwise this is one happy judge saying good day and court is dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2000 Harold Gervais; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: USA Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 160 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer
* TV Spots
* Photo Gallery
* Cast and Crew Biographies and Filmographies
* About Gilbert and Sullivan