Topsy-Turvy, Blu-ray (1999/2011)
Director: Mike Leigh
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Sukie Smith
Studio: Universal Studios/Focus Features/The Criterion Collection 558 [3/29/11]
Video: 1.78:1 for 16:9 color 1080p HD
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio
Extras: Audio commentary track by director Mike Leigh; New conversation between Leigh and music director of the film, Gary Yershon; 1999 featurette with Leigh, Broadbent, Corduner and other cast; Deleted scenes; 1992 short written by and starring Broadbent, “A Sense of History;” Theatrical trailer and TV spots; Printed booklet with essay by critic Amy Taubin
Length: 160 minutes
I usually avoid Leigh’s films about contemporary dysfunctional British families, but this one is entirely different from his usual efforts. His only costume and period feature is a bio about the Victorian world of Gilbert and Sullivan, which qualifies as a musical due to its extensive scenes from The Mikado, as well as Princess Ida and The Sorcerer. It brings the life and times of the two and their associates to brilliant life, and might even stimulate viewers new to Gilbert and Sullivan to explore some of their still wonderful and often hilarious operettas.
They couldn’t have been more different from one another. Gilbert was the conservative, cranky, overly-serious creator of the scenarios, settings, and lyrics. Sullivan was a convivial composer who kept trying to part from Gilbert to devote his time to “serious” classical works such as a real opera. He had a mistress, loved to enjoy himself in France, and along with others in the D’Oyly Carte company, self-medicated himself to handle the pressures of performance. (In his case, a mixture of whisky, coffee and daily Morphine injections.)
The two had frequent heated words (often peppered with words in French and Italian, like many of their upper-class cohorts of the time) and were again on the verge of breaking up their successful partnership, when Gilbert’s wife dragged him to a Japanese exposition in London. Presto, Gilbert’s new recycled operetta idea was dropped and he was hanging up Japanese swords in his study and bringing Japanese ladies from the exhibit to show his ladies on stage how to move and act like the Japanese. Needless to say, The Mikado was a huge success. One unusual scene occurs when at the finale rehearsal Gilbert decides to cut the Mikado’s big song – the one about “making the punishment fit the crime” – and the next day the entire chorus appears at the door of his office to urge him to put the important song back in.
All the characters are believable and convincing, the backstage stuff is fascinating, and one is surprised to find this period and subject to be such a delight. The musical performances are all superb. Another great scene is when the female lead singers are being fitted by the costume lady and complaining when they find that the Japanese ladies do not wear corsets. One insists she will not appear on the stage without her corset. Then it switches to the men’s costuming department and one of the male leads has a similar complaint that he has never performed without his corset, which supposedly supports his diaphragm and results in a better vocal tone. The only major star is Broadbent as Gilbert, and he totally inhabits his character. Closeups of his face, such as when first seeing the Japanese exhibit, are priceless. Though fairly low budget for such musicals, the production is lush and holds interest for its lengthy coarse.
The Blu-ray transfer looks tremendous, as usual with Criterion. The drum that comes thru in the music from The Mikado thoroughly exercises one’s subwoofer. The recent video talk between Leigh and his music director is most fascinating, and the half-hour short film starring Jim Broadbent is definitely worth seeing – it is a masterful monologue by a British noble showing the viewer around his huge estate while he gradually admits to a series of awful crimes, starting at age 7½, which ensured his position as head of the estate.
— John Sunier