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Topsy-Turvy (Blu-ray Review)

4 Apr, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for a scene of risque nudity.
Stars Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Lesley Manville, Timothy Spall.

You can’t exactly say that writer-director Mike Leigh’s masterpiece — and yes, on a certain level, it probably is futile limiting that accolade honor to a single movie — was as underrated as his most recent achievement: December’s recent Another Year. Well received to be sure, the latter nonetheless came up short in last year’s awards department while several of its inferiors (no names, please, but they were several of 2010’s biggest “big ones”) cleaned up. At least 1999’s sumptuous portrait of Gilbert and Sullivan did:

• Tie with Being John Malkovich for their year’s best picture award from the National Society of Film Critics

• Take the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best picture

• Win two Oscars (costume design and makeup) while earning nominations in two more categories (art/set decoration and original screenplay).

But it still deserved much, much more in a year when The Cider House Rules and The Green Mile both incredibly wangled best picture Oscar nominations. In my view, there’s never been anything quite like Topsy-Turvy, despite the hundred of backstage movies that Hollywood and other countries have made. It surpasses even a movie as good as Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach, which has a not dissimilar spirit (though it’s French-Italian and set in Central America). And from everything I’ve read, 1953’s The Great Gilbert and Sullivan, whose current obscurity is a factor of its less than infrequent showings over a period of decades. Certainly, there’s no way it goes where this movie does.

For one thing, Leigh’s film takes about 35 minutes to establish the frustrated ambitions but also the social affability of composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) before it even introduces the far more intimidating and even prickly librettist W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent, accordingly given almost all the laugh lines). And unlike most backstage biographies, Topsy-Turvy opens and continues on with the team at mid-career point — when their comic-opera soufflés are becoming redundant, the critical huzzahs are falling off, and Sullivan wants to go it alone composing more serious works. At this point, Gilbert is coaxed by his underappreciated wife (Lesley Manville, in incredible contrast to her performance in Another Year) to attend the Japanese Exhibition that is beguiling London. Presto: The Mikado is born.

As critic Amy Taubin notes in a wonderful accompanying essay here, the movie (despite the oddity in Leigh’s filmography that it seems to be) is exacting in its delineation of a rehearsal process that is not very different from Leigh’s own. There is a marvelous long passage here where Broadbent rehearses and really directs a handful of street-clothed actors in a room before we cut to a scene of the resulting performance. A lot of filmmakers wouldn’t have taken the time to dramatize these labors to significant extent, but at 163 minutes, Leigh successfully gambles on showing us a lot of things.

As a result, this is the best movie I have ever seen about entertainment backers and their taken-for-granted financial pressures (though parts of Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock probably come close). And just as Rear Window is a definitive movie about life without or before air conditioning, this is a definitive one about perspiring through a public performance without benefit of the same (though Luchino Visconti’s Senso, also just out from Criterion, is a contender on this count as well). Though nothing is really left to chance in a Leigh movie, there’s a fine throwaway where The Mikado’s players start to talk about the recent death of Maj.-Gen. Charles “Chinese” Gordon (the guy Charlton Heston played in Khartoum) at the hands of Mahdist forces. All of a sudden, we’re in 1885 even more than we’ve been already. Here are regular folks (certainly not of military bent) talking of this just as they’d talk about Libya or the Japanese tsunami were the movie taking place today. And then Leigh’s capper, in a male-dominated story, is to end his film daringly with three scenes that focus on its female characters, making us consider everything we’ve seen up to then in a slightly different light. But not enough of one, you can be sure, to invert the film’s tone.

As captured by the masterful camera of Leigh regular Dick Pope, the on-stage makeup is very harsh — much more so than its counterpart is in Universal’s 1939 Technicolor screen version of The Mikado, an agreeable and pigmentally stunning photographed stage play that Criterion is releasing in tandem with Topsy-Turvy. This is because Leigh’s film is about the “process” — the grunt work and artifice that makes stage success possible. It’s also about the crew camaraderie that’s also required — which is what we see here despite a few memorable tirades — and the fact that the nothing-in-common partners continue to address each other by their surnames when they’ve been together for a quarter century or so. These are the kids of things that set the picture apart.

With a cast of about 80 (lots of salaries there) on a budget that was about half of what Leigh wanted, the movie looks like a trillion — in fact, it’s not all that visually subordinate to The Red Shoes. There are the usual Criterion goodies: Leigh commentary; a 1992 Broadbent-directed short that kind of planted the Topsy-Turvy seed; terrific deleted scenes; Leigh’s conversation with musical director Gary Vershon — because, yes, this is also a musical and a great one. But most importantly, they’ve nailed the movie’s look even more than Universal Studios Home Entertainment’s previous and creditable DVD did a decade ago. Which, by the way, seems to be routinely re-available on Amazon.com these days (if not every site I checked) after a long period of being out of print. Having let its availability lapse is still more ammo for the assertion that this is a magnificent achievement that never got full due.

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