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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 7/20/00

1999 (2000) - USA Films

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Topsy-Turvy Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A/C+

Specs and Features

161 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:22:40, in chapter 23), Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, TV spots, behind the scenes featurette, photo gallery, cast and crew biographies and filmographies, text essay on Gilbert & Sullivan, animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (39 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 and 2.0), subtitles: English, Spanish and French, Closed Captioned

Topsy-Turvy is writer/director Mike Leigh's detailed look into the stormy relationship between lyricist W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner). As a writing team, they were responsible for some of the world's most beloved and whimsical musical theatre productions, including The Pirates of Penzance and the subject of this movie, The Mikado. Topsy-Turvy shows us what went into the making of this respected production, and Mike Leigh's painstaking attention to detail makes this one of the best, most entertaining films of 1999.

The movie starts with the opening of Princess Ida, one of their lesser-known productions. Unfavorable reviews and an already deteriorating relationship between the two lead them to decide on a mutual professional split in the partnership. Sullivan retreats to the south of France to forget about his professional dissatisfaction and his failing kidneys (by visiting a lot of brothels), and the reserved, hyper-perfectionist Gilbert goes into semi-retirement. But after some convincing by his supportive wife (Lesley Manville) and the Savoy Theatre (who remind him of his contractual obligations), Gilbert decides to give it a go again and convinces Sullivan to join him.

After attending a London exhibition of Japanese culture, Gilbert is inspired to write a comic operetta, this time with an authentic Japanese motif. To heighten the realism of his production, he employs three Japanese women to act as silent supervisors and consultants while cast members rehearse their scenes. The humor in the scene comes not only from Gilbert's driving perfectionism, but also from the incredible absurdity of staging a "Japanese" opera with an all white (and REALLY white at that) cast.

Intercut with these scenes are grandly staged production numbers of songs from The Mikado and other Gilbert & Sullivan works. Some found these numbers to needlessly lengthen the movie's running time, but I enjoyed them enormously and felt they added a great deal of merriment and fun to a film that could have otherwise been very dry material. Gilbert & Sullivan's songs, though light in nature, are catchy and fun and the well-rehearsed cast does an excellent job of conveying their magic.

As interesting and brilliant as the staged musical numbers of Topsy-Turvy are, it's the backstage material that is the real essence of the story. This is not the first time we've seen backstage antics on film, but it's one of the few times that they've been shown realistically. Of course, there is a lot of ego in the actions of the players, but there's also a lot of real emotion behind their egos. Consider a scene where the actors all rally against Gilbert's decision to cut a number he feels to be inferior. The actors' motives aren't entirely selfish, but are based in part in their belief in the material. Leigh's brand of exacting improvisation allows this scene, and several others, to develop in a very genuine and untheatrical manner. He allows his actors time to think about their actions as well as their words, and in doing so creates very natural responses and a thoroughly engaging film.

USA Films (the distributor of this very British film) has given us an absolutely beautiful presentation of Topsy-Turvy on DVD. There's a lot of color in this movie, and it comes across wonderfully in the anamorphic transfer. Edge enhancement is thankfully kept at a minimum and there are few occurrences of digital artifacting. The picture quality is exceptional. Black level is solid without being too imposing or overbearing and color separation is maintained very nicely. Flesh tones are warm and natural, and the detailed, colorful costumes and sets all look brilliant with no distracting shimmering effects.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is also exemplary, and makes good use of the complete sound system. Carl Davis' score (based on Sullivan's musical numbers) is rich and full. This mix employs both front and rear speakers and includes a surprising amount of bass on the .1 channel. There's always a risk, in movies where music is the centerpiece, of dialogue getting drowned out by an overactive soundtrack. But not here - the sound engineer who mixed this disc did a terrific job, creating smooth balance between each track. Nicely done, indeed.

If there's anything about the disc that leaves something to be desired, it's the features. Topsy-Turvy received Academy accolades for its costumes and authentic period makeup, but there's no mention of that - not even in the short featurette. There are brief interviews with several of the film's key players in the featurette, including Leigh, Corduner, and the magnificent (and overlooked) Jim Broadbent. But aside from a few pages of trivia about Gilbert & Sullivan, the rest is pretty typical filler material - a theatrical trailer, television spots, cast and crew bios and filmographies, and a brief photo gallery. A director's commentary would have been an obvious choice here, but there's none to be found. All in all, this disc gives you nothing extraordinary in the way of supplements... but what you get is certainly better than nothing.

Topsy-Turvy is a great movie. At times it's lighthearted and delightful, and at other times it's a very complex look into the world of theatre. I'm the first to admit that this may not, at first sight, be a movie for everyone. Yes... it is a detailed and slowly deliberate period piece, but it's also a whole lot more. Topsy-Turvy is a great character study of two men with very different personalities and lifestyles. It's a fantastic backstage theatre piece. It's an exercise in the kind of brilliance than can spring up out of madness. It also makes a great companion piece to one of Leigh's other great masterpieces of human emotion, Secrets & Lies (which has yet to find a home on DVD). The video and audio on the DVD are outstanding and make this the perfect format for a film rich with colorful characters and visuals.

Dan Kelly
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