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Topsy-Turvy

If the film critics of America had their way at the Academy Awards (they never do, it seems), Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy probably would have won the Best Picture Oscar for 1999, as his lavish period film won Best Picture awards from both the New York Film Critics Circle and The National Society of Film Critics, and a host of other accolades from other groups as well (Topsy-Turvy did earn well-deserved Academy Awards for make-up and costumes, but the Academy, in their strange Anglophile way, often tends to hand these awards out to British costume dramas as it is). And if it was somewhat snubbed come Oscar-time, Topsy-Turvy is nonetheless a magnificent film, bristling with entertaining scenes and carefully researched down to the smallest details in order to re-create the world of 19th century London, and particularly the milieu of the London theater. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner star as the famed musical team of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, who dominated the London stage for several years with such successes as The Pirates of Penzance and H.M.S. Pinafore. But by the time Princess Ida arrives in 1881 to some scandalous reviews that insist the duo has lost their way, composer Sullivan suddenly decides that he has been wasting his talent on the "topsy-turvydom" of Gilbert's stories, which always seem to rely on magic charms or potions to get the plot moving. A diabetic given to ill health, Sullivan visits Europe for an extended stay, and when he returns to London he refuses to honor his theater contract, which requires a new production, and instead insists that he should spend the remainder of his life creating symphonies and other important compositions that have no need for stage performers and sing-songs. While the optimistic, ambitious Sullivan is persuaded by all parties to honor his contract, which he steadfastly refuses to do, the hardworking Gilbert continues create new projects (nothing better explains the dichotomy between the two than when Gilbert proclaims, with pride, that he has been doing exactly the same thing for 25 years, and with great consistency). But, aware that Sullivan may be persuaded to return to the partnership if he can fashion a libretto with some sort of seriousness and human impact, Gilbert never completely abandons hope for another Gilbert and Sullivan production, and it is when he is dragged by his wife to a Japanese exhibition in London, with Japanese performers illustrating the culture and details of their once-closed society, that Sullivan buys a Samurai sword, hangs it in his study, and composes the story of what is widely regarded to be one of the duo's greatest masterpieces — The Mikado.

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Topsy-Turvy, upon first viewing, is overwhelmingly impressive, even with a running time of more than two and one-half hours. It seems that Leigh spared no expense to chronicle this brief, small turning point in the history of the London theater, and every actor who must play a musical instrument on camera actually knows how to play it. Leigh also formed a substantial research team a year before the film began shooting, and they were on-set throughout the production. Many of these historical snippets wind up in the course of the story, in particular the emergence of new technologies (Gilbert, when on the new-fangled telephone, shouts at the top of his lungs; Sullivan is impressed when presented by a friend with a pen that has a reservoir for its own ink, and thus doesn't require an inkwell). Each and every one of the performers, in either lead, supporting, or bit parts, are uniformly excellent and obviously drawn from the theater, and when given such talent on sets laden with period details, it's little wonder that Leigh chooses to shoot most everything with minimal coverage, often setting his camera in a single position and letting his subjects carry on for minutes at a time. Everything drives towards the opening night of The Mikado, and even if you don't have any interest in musical theater, you probably will be transfixed by the 15 minutes of excerpts, performed on stage at the film's end, as various storylines between the composer, librettist, and principal performers finally arrive at a single point in time. Subtitles have never been more appropriate on DVD, as audiences were routinely issued librettos for operas — more than a century after Gilbert and Sullivan's popular productions, the English subtitle track performs the same function nicely. Solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), DD 5.1 or Dolby 2.0 Surround. Ten-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, photo gallery, trailer, TV spots, cast-and-crew-notes, and notes on the historical Gilbert and Sullivan.
—JJB



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