Topsy-Turvy (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Special Edition, Special ed.
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The world of Gilbert and Sulliavan comes to vivid life in this extraordinary dramatization of the staging of their legendary 1885 comic opera The Mikado from Mike Leigh (Naked, Secrets and Lies). Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge, Iris) and Allan Corduner (Yentl, Vera Drake) brilliantly inhabit the roles of the world-famous Victorian librettist and composer, respectively, who, along with their troupe of temperamental actors, must battle personal and professional demons while mounting this major production. A lushly produced epic about the harsh realities of creative expression, featuring bravura performances and Oscar-winning costume design and makeup, Topsy-Turvy is an unexpected period delight from one of contemporary cinema’s great artists.
As is often the case with Criterion Collection reissues, the bonus material for both the Blu-ray and DVD editions of Topsy-Turvy is generous and varied. Aside from director Mike Leigh's audio commentary track, a nearly 40-minute conversation between Leigh and musical director Gary Yershon, the only item newly created for this release, will appeal to film buffs, as the two discuss Leigh's decision to focus on The Mikado instead of other Gilbert and Sullivan works; the director's preference for lyricist Gilbert, the more conflicted and complex of the pair; the filmmakers' use of diaries and other material to give the film a strong factual basis; and various technical details. Deleted scenes and a brief (about 10 minutes) making-of featurette from 1999 are of middling interest, but the real gem here is "A Sense of History," a short (about 22 minutes) film from 1992. Directed by Leigh and both written by and starring Jim Broadbent, it's an amusing, increasingly strange satire of British nobility in which Broadbent portrays the (fictional) 23rd Earl of Leete. As a film crew accompanies him on a tour of his grand country estate, the earl details an outrageous catalogue of family horrors, ranging from an abusive father and narcotized mother to the earl's own macabre misdeeds. We're told that it was during the production of this film that Leigh and Broadbent first discussed making a movie about Gilbert and Sullivan, which explains its presence here; but this peculiar item could also stand quite well on its own. --Sam Graham
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The performances are superb (Jim Broadbent was born to play W. S. Gilbert and Ron Cook is the very image of Richard D'Oyly Carte). The evocation of a time gone by (when people were polite, civil and courteous, even backstage) is extremely well done. Since most of the actors are not widely known in the states apart from Broadbent, Timothy Spall and possibly Andy Serkis (Gollum), one may actually see them as the characters they portray (apart from Jesse Bond, see below). Many of the great Gilbert and Sullivan songs from the piece are aired, in various forms. Sometimes it is in rehearsal, sometimes full-blown onstage. And the lyrics, as Gilbert always insisted, are well enunciated and fully understandable, though a few get drowned in the finale. Altogether a workmanlike piece.
A few caveats. There is a totally gratuitous scene of topless female nudity. If they are to be included they ought to be women with lovelier poitrines. If filmmakers insist on shoving these in our faces they may as well be worth looking at. And the ending is a downer. We live in an age where joy and triumph can't have the last word so while I would have ended the film with G&S taking their well-deserved curtain calls, this flick travels on past that to make us understand Life is earnest! Life is real! Fiddlesticks. All we needed as a memento mori was a bunch of tag overlays at the end telling us they're all dead now.
Minor quibbles. First, the portrayal of Jesse Bond. She is a favorite of G&S addicts who studied the Savoyards and collected recordings dating back to Henry Lytton. Those of us who dote on Jesse and read her (no doubt ghosted) book are disappointed that she comes off in the film as querulous and dim; but the actors, I suppose, must be given different characters, and Bond does appear genuinely talented in actual performance. Two other quibbles concern authenticity. Approaching the first night of "Mikado" the background music (presumably, by its sound, emanating from the orchestra) has a snatch of a tune from "Yeoman of the Guard" which has yet to be written. And during Gama's song in "Princess Ida" the other characters onstage do a bit of mugging I doubt Gilbert would have countenanced--he believed the humor should rise from the words, not stage business. Also, while the film buys wholesale the story of the falling Samurai sword, it gives Broadbent's Gilbert a wonderful moment of illumination that's well worth the effort. Bravo.
I wish I could correct one thing, however. "The Mikado" as portrayed on the film is done so beautifully I wish they had filmed the entire thing to add as a bonus disk. Leigh's vision of "The Mikado" as staged comes off even better (arguably) than the 1967 D'oyly Carte film with actual Savoyards like Donald Adams and John Reed. I'd like to see the whole thing, even with GG's legendary nervousness showing so obviously through. After all, Koko is looking forward to boiling oil or melted lead.
Overall, worth owning for any G&S fan. Worth watching for anyone interested in the era or curious about the music. If nothing else, worth seeing once as a film of beauty when people had a sense of honor, of dignity, and civility. And great music.
That said, it does spare the foibles of the people involved. Gilbert's irrascibility, Sullivan's womanizing (yes, the composer of Onward Christian Soldiers frequented brothels and had a mistress) and gambling. Helen, the super efficient manager for Richard d'Oyly Carte eventually married him and was key to the continued operation of the Savoy theater and the perpetuation of the G&S tradition after his death.
The best part of the movie, however, is the presentation of scenes from Princess Ida and the Sorcerer in addition to highlights from the Mikado itself.
It is set in 1885. Gilbert & Sullivan have lost their creative spark and are relying on revivals of past works to keep themselves and the Savoy Theater going. A chance visit to a Japanese exhibition in London gives Gilbert the idea for a "Japanese opera" and thus THE MIKADO comes into being. That's the story of the film in a nutshell. What director Mike Leigh does is to expand that basic scenario and give us much, much more. We not only see THE MIKADO come into being but get a good look at the lives of Gilbert & Sullivan away from the theater. We also get to see a detailed look at the world of Victorian London and a behind-the-scenes look at the D'Oyly-Carte Opera Company and how a show is created from scratch.
What makes TOPSY-TURVY truly stand out is that you really do feel as if you have been transported back in time to the late 19th century. Every detail from the opulent and repressive Victorian fashions to the cluttered rooms with heavy furnishings to the secret lives of the characters is captured with remarkable fidelity (or the illusion of it). Gas jets and horse drawn carriages, backstage dressing rooms and secret boudoirs, the lost art of elegant conversation and more are impeccably recreated. Only ANONYMOUS (2011) about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays with its vivid rendering of Elizabethan London gave me such a powerful feeling of being there not as an audience member but as an actual observer.
The performances are all flawless from Jim Broadbent and Alan Cordurer as G & S to Timothy Spall and Martin Savage as leading members of the company. Since this is a Mike Leigh film there are several strong roles for women with Lesley Manville as Gilbert's long suffering wife a standout. The look of the film is incredibly sumptious and to think that it was made for only 10 million pounds seems beyond belief. The film's length (160 minutes) and deliberate pace will frustrate some people and Savoyards will want more opera and less background but if you love history, it's a dream come true. The Criterion edition is a definite upgrade from the previous DVD featuring lots of extras with the only flaw being no subtitles.
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