Criterion | | 1999 | 160 mins. | R

In 1885, the team of Gilbert and Sullivan were at the height of their career. Even their decidedly mediocre Princess Ida, which had just premiered at the Savoy Theatre in London, was predicted to be a smash, despite reviews that criticized the pair for the repetition in Gilbert’s comical lyrics and Sullivan’s orchestral melodies. It seemed the duo could do no wrong.

Topsy-Turvy1999’s Topsy-Turvy looks in on the pair just as Ida is taking a creative toll on them. Arthur Sullivan, played by Allan Corduner, is overworked and dissatisfied. For the sake of his health he escapes to the South of France. Upon his return, Sullivan rejects W. S. Gilbert’s (Jim Broadbent) new libretto, instead deciding to write a new, grand opera where his music won’t be outshone by the singing. Shocked, Gilbert is understandably hurt. After all, he’s spent months laboring on a musical in which a magical potion transforms the citizens of a European mountain town into whatever they want to be. Sullivan’s rebuffing of his work, had to feel like a rejection of him personally.

Though successful business partners, Gilbert & Sullivan are two very different personalities. Sullivan is a womanizer, Gilbert a businessman with an eye for theatrical detail. Just as it looks like their partnership may be over, Gilbert’s wife Kitty (Lesley Manville), drags him to London’s newly opened Japan exhibition, where he observes a Kabuki performance, sips green tea and buys a sword, which his butler nails up over the door. Shortly thereafter, inspiration strikes. Gilbert begins feverishly writing the libretto for The Mikado. Sullivan agrees to compose the music and the duo is once again back on track.

In a series of humorous scenes showing dress rehearsals in which the actors “practice” acting Japanese and the costumers work to base their designs on Japanese prints, the decidedly stuffy British characters become increasingly annoying as they deride the Japanese culture they’re attempting to portray on stage. Scottish actor Durward Lely (Kevin McKidd) whines about the unseemliness of his hem length and lack of a corset. Actress Jessie Bond (Dorothy Atkinson) moans about her costume, refusing to appear on stage without a corset, while the costumer bemoans, “But Japanese women are so small and thin.” And just to make sure the actors get things just right, Gilbert parades a series of Japanese women from the Kabuki performance up and down a stage, so they can imitate the Japanese walk.

Of course, in reality Gilbert has no idea what real Japanese culture is, and can’t be bothered to learn. As a result, The Mikado tends to resemble an expensive minstrel show—the kind being staged in America around the same time, with white actors in blackface mocking poor blacks. Instead of the human emotion and morality tale Sullivan set out to create, it is in fact, more of the “Topsy-Turvy-dom” he was looking to avoid.

Director Mike Leigh and his team have meticulously recreated the Savoy and its lavish stage productions. In addition to songs from The Mikado, which are sprinkled throughout the narrative at key moments, we also get glimpses of Princess Ida and The Sorcerer, both to show the Gilbert and Sullivan style and also, in the case of the latter, to show the magic they created, both as acts of fiction and in the act of creating that fiction. Though Leigh is known for his serious human comedies, Topsy-Turvy is more expansive and fancy than his usual style. Dick Pope’s photography allows us to become fully enmeshed in the story. We are with the audience and the crew and the performers all at the same time.

Topsy-Turvy looks great on this 1080p transfer, with black levels remaining consistent from start to finish and color quality coming through with punch and clarity. Detail is superb, offering the wide spectrum of tactile textures in the picture to appear true and well-defined, and the transfer print utilized here is wonderfully clear of dirt and debris. Grain is also readily present.

The lossless DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio sound mix is also excellent. Dialogue is crystal clear, surround channels are utilized throughout and the music shines. Exploiting a panoramic dynamic range and pristine fidelity, Topsy-Turvy sounds perfect here.

We get the following special features:

  • Audio Commentary – director Mike Leigh discusses the production history of Topsy-Turvy, the extensive research, how specific scenes were shot, various themes from the film, etc. Recorded in 1999.
  • Mike Leigh and Gary Yershon – recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2010, this is arguably the best supplemental feature on this disc. Director Mike Leigh and music director Gary Yershon recall their work on Topsy-Turvy and how the film has aged (38 min, 1080p).
  • Deleted Scenes – a gallery of scenes deleted from the final cut of Topsy-Turvy.– Helen and D’Oyly Carte (8 min, 1080i).
    — Brothel scene (uncut) (3 min, 1080i).
    — Sullivan’s aspirations (2 min, 1080i). — “If Patriotic Sentiment Is Wanted” (cut song) (3 min, 1080i).
  • A Sense of History (1992) – a short film written by Jim Broadbent and directed by Mike Leigh. (27 min, 1080i).
  • Featurette – interviews with director Mike Leigh, Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Gary Yershon, and other cast members. (10 min, 1080i).
  • Trailer and TV Spots— Theatrical Trailer. (3 min, 1080p).
    — TV Spot 1 (1 min, 1080i).
    — TV Spot 2 (1 min, 1080i).
    — TV Spot for Soundtrack (1 min, 1080i).
  • Booklet – 18-page illustrated booklet containing Amy Taubin’s essay “Great Performances” (the author is a contributing editor at Film Comment and Sight & Sound).