By the time depicted in the film Topsy-Turvy, 1885, this world famous pair had created over two dozen world-renowned light operas

Towards the end of the 19th century, two men in London commanded the English stage. They were not the actors but rather the most famous writer and composer, Gilbert and Sullivan. By the time depicted in the film Topsy-Turvy, 1885, this world famous pair had created over two dozen world-renowned light operas. Unfortunately, the well was beginning to run dry. Their current opus, Princess Ida, bombed. Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) was deeply depressed by this failure. His life long ambition was to write serious music but felt trapped in the light and comic work he has done. After finding solace in the arms of his mistress and in drug induced euphoria, Sir Arthur sets out to rest on the continent. Meanwhile, Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) is also feeling a bit of writer’s block. The critics have panned his latest work calling it just another of Gilbert’s world of topsey-turvy-dom, referring his common device of flipping the story around at the end to draw the play to a conclusion. In the midst of all of this the owners of the Savoy theater, the premiere theater for the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, Helen Lenoir (Wendy Nottingham) and Richard D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) are concerned that their business will fail. They have to find some way get the two giants of musical comedy back on track. Add to this the egos of the cast all with their own personal problems, ambitions and demands and you have a case of life imitating art. After Gilbert’s wife, in an effort to cheer him up, takes him to a popular exposition from Japan, an idea hits the stogy writer. An opera about Japan would be novel, dramatic, funny and most of all popular. From this modest idea the Mikado was born. What follows is a look at the pain staking process of pulling the show together. The endless tedium of rehearsal, meetings with actual Japanese people to learn to walk ‘in Japanese fashion’, a battles over what stays in the show and what is to be cut.

The cast of Topsy-Turvy will probably be largely unknown to most American audiences. This works in favor for Topsy-Turvy. At times you will forget Topsy-Turvy is a movie and start to view it almost as a documentary. Allan Corduner and Jim Broadbent are wonderful as Sullivan and Gilbert. They wear the cloak of Victorian England’s upper society as if born to it. In true continental elan they speak in formal manner in all but the most intimate of occasions. There is even the habit of adding French and Italian to one’s speech to demonstrate how educated one is. (there is also the constant habit of the pronoun use of one’s self present). In the male dominated world depicted by this film it is the women that truly steal the show. Nottingham as the business like Helen Lenoir is powerful. She uses her gender to her advantage during a time when feminism was not even a remote concept. She controls business meetings with a flair few can master. Then there is the excellent performance by Lesley Manville as Kitty Gilbert. Her performance demonstrates grace, strength and a tender love for her husband. Such range is rare in a film and rarer still to be done so well.

Directing this opus is Mike Leigh. I greatly enjoyed his one of his little independent English films, Life is Sweet, a story of a pair of twenty-something twins in working class England. Much of his experience in direction comes from the theater so his presentation of the behind the scene conflict comes across in a very natural manner. Leigh is a straight foreword director. No fancy cuts or angles, no tricky camera work or lighting, just a matter of fact presentation of the action. With so much going on in the interwoven stories, any other style of direction would greatly detract from the enjoyment of the film. Almost all of the musical score of Topsy-Turvy is from the many operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. The music is beautifully woven throughout the work lending emotional direction. There are also many musical numbers within Topsy-Turvy showcasing the excellent voices of the cast. Gilbert and Sullivan operas are among the most difficult pieces for a stage actor. The rapid-fire patter songs are a test for the precision of the artist and are performed here without flaw.

The disc is another one that is rather light on the usual extras but this should not be held against it. It does have information about Gilbert and Sullivan, some TV spots and a featurette but what really should draw you to this DVD is the production values of Topsy-Turvy. The Dolby 5.1 sound is enfolding. Especially well done are the variations of the sound field as you move from stage to parlor. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video is also excellent, even in the scenes that are darkly lit. Whether you are a Gilbert and Sullivan fan or not you will enjoy this romp through the 1880’s theater.

Review by Doug MacLean of

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