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Blu-ray Reviews


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#1 of 3 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

Matt Hough

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Posted March 15 2011 - 02:11 PM


Topsy-Turvy (Blu-ray)
Directed by Mike Leigh 

Studio: Criterion
Year: 1999
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1   1080p   AVC codec  
Running Time: 160 minutes
Rating: R
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles:  SDH

Region:  A
MSRP:  $ 39.95

Release Date: March 29, 2011

Review Date: March 15, 2011



The Film



A stunning combination of a dual autobiographical portrait and a historical recreation featuring the origins of one of the theater’s most renowned comic operas, Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy brings a genuine theatrical flavor and scrumptious Victorian sensibilities to grand and glorious life. Dealing with the creation of William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s The Mikado, Topsy-Turvy offers portraits of almost a dozen memorable personages of that time and place and presents them in a superb period recreation that consistently astounds (even more so when one learns the film was made on a very small and strict budget). It’s a long film but a most rewarding one especially if one has any interest whatsoever in the theater. In fact, the film’s only real problem lies in its ambitiousness, such a well researched and depicted period banquet that there simply isn’t enough time to savor every morsel present.


After the lukewarm critical and public reception to their latest comic opera Princess Ida, composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) decides that he simply cannot honor his contract with theatrical impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) and work with bristly partner W. S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) turning out any more “musical soufflés” when he longs to compose a grand opera and work on other more serious compositions. He’s tired of stories involving magical concoctions and other fantasy elements of “topsy-turvy-dom” which he feels simply don’t bring out all that he has to offer as a composer. However, his opinion changes when Gilbert brings him the libretto for a Japanese-inspired story which they turn into The Mikado. Despite many problems regarding authenticity of costume and mannerisms and internal problems with cast and crew, the musical promises to be a great success if all the individual elements can come together fortuitously on opening night.


Made for only $14 million, Topsy-Turvy gives the illusion that it costs considerably more than that. Sumptuous costumes (which won that year's Academy Award) and period sets and a very large cast meld beautifully with writer-director Mike Leigh’s inspired screenplay. True, the film offers such a wide canvas that not every character is given his proper due (really fascinating stars of their day like Richard Temple (Timothy Spall), Durward Lely (Kevin McKidd), Leonora Braham (Shirley Henderson), and George Grossmith (Martin Savage) have only a few precious moments to establish character), but anyone who’s ever been connected with putting on a theatrical piece can say with certainty that the film rings constantly true, especially in its last ninety minutes which deal more or less with the creation, production, and performance of The Mikado, one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most endearing and enduring works and handled expertly and uniquely by Leigh with cross-cutting and flashforwards and flashbacks that give this period piece a real freshness and cinematic zest..


There is the writing itself, inspired by Gilbert’s foray to a Japanese exhibition visiting London in 1885. Then there are the rehearsals, both for the comic business and the music rehearsals with the intricately constructed songs with their consistent mouthfuls of lyrics. Costume fittings (where Victorian propriety clashes with the striving for customized authenticity), dance rehearsals (with the company’s eccentric choreographer wonderfully played by Andy Serkis wildly objecting to anyone resetting his steps), cast notes after the final dress rehearsal in the early hours of the morning, and, of course, opening night jitters (where the director’s detailed observations of the way many of the characters deal – for good or ill – with their nerves), all are captured to perfection. And who can ever forget the film’s most supremely effective moment when the chorus joins together to plead for the reinstatement of Richard Temple’s solo cut at the final dress rehearsal much to his complete dismay? Anyone thinking the film might be a slave to the stiffness and severity of its Victorian setting need only experience that moving yet underplayed sequence to realize how truly marvelous Leigh’s script and direction are. Lovers of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas are also treated to a smattering of excerpts from Princess Ida, The Sorcerer, and, of course, generous dollops of The Mikado along with background music from many of the other operettas penned by the team.


And the film is rich in performance, too, with Jim Broadbent capturing beautifully Gilbert’s prickly ways and brusque manner in his loveless marriage to Lucy (Lesley Manville showing heartbreaking restraint). Allan Corduner’s colorful portrait of the more hedonistic Sullivan with his mistress Fanny Ronalds (Eleanor David underplaying quite effectively) and his frequent visits to the Paris brothels is particularly profound especially as Corduner is an experienced musician who plays all of his own piano solos in the film. Shirley Henderson displays a truly superb soprano singing voice (her climactic “The Sun and I” haunts), quite a surprise since her hoarsely seductive speaking voice recalls Joan Greenwood from an earlier generation of British comedies, dramas, and musicals. (All of the actors did their own singing for the movie.) Timothy Spall and Kevin McKidd, who have both gone on to great fame in a string of notable roles after this movie, share a dressing room and make for great company as we get to know the ins and outs of backstage life. Martin Savage’s Grossmith is likewise a fascinating character restricted unfortunately by the film’s overly ambitious attempts to squeeze so much history and character into its generous but still inadequate running time.



Video Quality



The film has been framed at 1.78:1 and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. As sumptuously as the film has been appointed, so too does the picture quality retain that sumptuousness. Colors are wonderfully saturated without ever becoming overpowering, and flesh tones retain an authenticity that’s most striking. Sharpness is exemplary with many details able to be gleaned from the image especially in weaves of fabrics, details in wood, facial features, and hair consistency. Black levels are marvelously realized. The infrequent subtitles appear in white and are easy to read. The film has been divided into 21 chapters.



Audio Quality



The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix is especially impressive in the mixing and separation of the score’s choral passages. Voices have been split into different channels during ensemble singing, and the orchestrations have a delectable vibrancy to them without ever seeming overdone or out of period. Dialogue has also been well recorded and resides firmly in the center channel. Perhaps a few more isolated incidents of split surround activity in the theater and in its environs might have expanded the soundstage a bit more, but that’s merely quibbling and not a serious mark against this excellent soundtrack.



Special Features



The audio commentary is provided by writer-director Mike Leigh (though he never introduces himself). It’s a detailed if somewhat fussy commentary as the award-winning writer-director discusses the content of scenes, motivations for his actions, and offers facts and trivia about the historical people and the actors playing them. It’s a very thorough if somewhat exhausting commentary.


Writer director Mike Leigh and music supervisor Gary Vershon swap marvelous stories about the making of the movie in this excellent 37 ¼-minute video interview. It’s in 1080p.


There are four deleted scenes which run a total of 7 minutes in (very poor quality taken from a work print) 1080i.


A Sense of History is Mike Leigh’s 1992 short written by and starring Jim Broadbent as an embittered earl making a documentary on his family history which turns into something very different. It runs 26 ¼ minutes in 1080i.


The official 1999 making of featurette for the film presents actors Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Kevin McKidd, Lesley Manville, and Shirley Henderson along with director Mike Leigh and music director Gary Yershon talking about production of the movie. It runs 9 ¾ minutes in 1080i.


The film’s theatrical trailer runs 2 ½ minutes in 1080p. There are three TV spots: two on the film (½ minute each) and an ad for the soundtrack CD (¼ minute) are in 1080i.


The enclosed 19-page booklet contains a cast and crew list, some beautiful color stills from the movie, and film writer Amy Taubin’s laudatory essay on the picture and its director.


The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.



 In Conclusion

4.5/5 (not an average)


Today’s musical theater creators owe a great debt to the musical productions of Gilbert and Sullivan. Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy pays tribute to their up-and-down personal and professional relationship in a rich, rewarding film that theater devotees can savor. Criterion’s impeccable Blu-ray release of the film includes delectable bonuses that make the package that much more worthy. Highly recommended!




Matt Hough

Charlotte, NC

#2 of 3 OFFLINE   John Hodson

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Posted March 17 2011 - 08:08 AM

Nice review Matt; a beautiful film, beautifully written, directed, acted and sung. A true joy from start to bittersweet finish.

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#3 of 3 OFFLINE   Ethan Riley

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Posted March 17 2011 - 09:26 AM

Good work, Matt! I didn't even realize this somewhat obscure film had made it to bluray. It sounds worth the upgrade for "A Sense of History" alone. I'm a theater person and have always been enthusiastic about this movie--lots of "theater people" have never even heard of it. But I think it's a must for all those interested in what goes on behind the scenes...