Criterion // 1999 // 160 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // March 29th, 2011
Gilbert & Sullivan & so much more.
Yes, it's about Gilbert & Sullivan, but don't worry -- you needn't be well-versed in the opera composers (or even be a fan, really) to still appreciate and enjoy Mike Leigh's 1999 film biopic Topsy-Turvy, now available on Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Following the failure of their 1884 opera Princess Ida, playwright W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner, Bigger Than the Sky) begin searching for inspiration for their next collaboration. Feeling like they're stuck in a repetitive rut, under pressure from their producer, D'Oyly (Ron Cook, Hot Fuzz), and experiencing a growing rift between them, the pair begins work on a new opera called The Mikado. The rest, they say, is history.
Writer/director Mike Leigh's films can be an acquired taste, but his 1999 biopic Topsy-Turvy may be a good entry point for neophyte viewers. If you're willing to overlook the fact that it's about Gilbert and Sullivan (hardly commercial subject matter), Topsy-Turvy is actually a pretty straightforward and even commercial film that's more accessible than a number of Leigh's other works. Of course, that's only on the surface, because Topsy-Turvy is much more than just a traditional biopic.
So much of what Topsy-Turvy is about is the creative process, both within a single creator and within the community of people that come together to realize that vision. And because of the way that writer/director Leigh works -- improvising with the cast and building the story and screenplay from that improvisation -- the movie becomes a dual-layered treatise on the creative process; the film reflects its making and vice versa. Topsy-Turvy is also concerned with the tension between art and commerce, represented in Sullivan (the more business-minded of the two, as presented in the movie) and Gilbert the creative type, respectively. Leigh has built himself something of a repertory company over the course of his career, and many of the actors he has used over and over again appear here -- perhaps most notably Jim Broadbent playing W.S. Gilbert. The entire cast is uniformly terrific (as is always the case in a Mike Leigh film), filled with recognizable British character actors with the kinds of faces that are fun and interesting to look at.
For all of its commercial elements (again, we are still talking about a Mike Leigh film -- one about opera composers in the late 1800s, no less), Topsy-Turvyis a dense, oddly-structured film (it's right there in the title) that certainly rewards repeat viewings -- if for no other reason than to absorb its handsome and intricate production design. This is a gorgeous film, combining period realism with over-the-top stylization (there are scenes that reminded me of a Terry Gilliam movie, if you can believe it) into something wholly original. Fans of Gilbert and Sullivan may not come out of the film learning everything they want to know about the duo, because Topsy-Turvy doesn't always concern itself with facts and historical accuracy. Nor should it; that's what books are for. Movies are about the way something feels -- about finding the drama in a story and exploring that. That's what Leigh accomplishes in Topsy-Turvy.
It's almost unheard of for the folks at Criterion to put out a transfer that isn't first-rate, and the Blu-ray presentation of Topsy-Turvy is no exception. The 1.78:1 image, 1080 HD transfer uses an MPEG-4 AVC encode and looks impressively natural; colors are, for the most part, subdued (by design) and detail is strong throughout. It's also totally clean, with no visible damage or flaws. Though there's nothing flashy about the transfer (nor should there be, as this is not a flashy movie), its elegance and attention to detail is just what we've come to expect from Criterion. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio track is even stronger, if only because in addition to presenting the dialogue in a clean, clear manner, the track really kicks in when Gilbert & Sullivan's operas take over the soundtrack. It's not as dramatic as the track for, say, Amadeus, but that's because neither the music nor the film is as dramatic, either. Still, fans of the movie and (especially) fans of Gilbert & Sullivan won't be disappointed.
I know it's become old hat to constantly heap praise upon Criterion, but that's how they got to be the home video gold standard in the first place. The supplemental package they've put together for Topsy-Turvy is another of their terrific efforts. The first -- and, arguably, best -- bonus feature is a full-length commentary from writer/director Mike Leigh, which was originally recorded in 1999 when the film was released. It's too bad he didn't record a new track, as the benefit of hindsight might have put a new spin on his talk, but his discussion of the movie is still engaging and interesting. Luckily, a new interview with Leigh has been recorded for this release, in which he's joined by music director Gary Yershon for a look back at Topsy-Turvy; the 40-minute featurette and the commentary track actually work to compliment one another nicely. About 12 minutes of deleted scenes are included, as is a nearly 30-minute short film from 1992 directed by Mike Leigh (and starring Topsy-Turvy's Jim Broadbent, who also wrote the short) called "A Sense of History." Rounding out the special features is the standard making-of featurette from 1999, the film's original theatrical trailer and a collection of TV commercials, as well as an 18-page booklet featuring an essay on the film by film critic Amy Taubin.
Like every other Mike Leigh movie, Topsy-Turvy isn't for everyone. Its subject matter alone might put some audiences off, while others may find it too dense or quirky for their tastes. It's a terrific movie, though, and anyone who's even remotely inclined to give it a look should be sure to do right by the film and check out Criterion's Blu-ray.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 160 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Short Film
* TV Spots