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Three More Reasons: Topsy Turvy

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The Criterion Collection has a running series on its YouTube channel detailing three reasons why each film in their considerable arsenal is worthy of inclusion. Film buffs delight in bandying about titles that are arguably glaring omissions in the distribution company's library and films that don't deserve the iconic san-serif "C," as well as the reasons why those that are rightfully included made the cut. One of the happiest inclusions in recent memory, however, was the March release of Mike Leigh's 1999 film Topsy Turvy.

At first glance it can be written off as a costume biopic of Gilbert and Sullivan, but unwrap the detailed and intricate layers of this flick and you find that it's a giddy treasure trove of Victorian witticisms, deep character studies and, yes, some of the most famous English operetta you'll ever hear. Whether you are caravaning to Caramoor on Saturday to catch their production of H.M.S. Pinafore or are otherwise engaged this weekend, now's the perfect time for a first glance (or repeated viewing) of this modern classic. From the fact that all actors sing their own parts to the adroit cinematography of Dick Pope, there's a lot to love. And if you need more convincing, you can catch our three reasons for Topsy Turvy's winning endurance (after Criterion's below).

1. Inside Jokes that Avoid Insider Baseball: Whether it's an obvious reference ("What, never?" Gilbert asks Lely when he says he never performs without his corset) or a slier nod ("She cannot conceive why the Irish are starving when there's lots of good fish in the sea," Fanny Reynolds--Arthur Sullivan's mistress--drawls), Topsy Turvy is fraught with Gilbert-and-Sullivanisms that trip off the tongue as naturally as any of the original dialogue. Similarly, under Gary Yershon's musical directorship, the score plays on the considerable output of Sullivan and balances his frothier pieces from Iolanthe, Ruddigore and, of course, The Mikado with the more serious works that Allan Corduner's Sir Arthur longs to write. Like Milos Forman's Amadeus, however, a thorough knowledge of the lives and times of Gilbert and Sullivan is not essential to picking up on this humor. Some allusions may pass over one's head (this author included), but missing out on them doesn't take away from any of the wit or poignancy of the film. 

2. Painstaking Research: Director Mike Leigh is best known for his contemporary British films, often in gritty settings. The lush switch to posh drawing rooms and opera houses of late-19th-century London could have been disastrous, but as Leigh elaborates in his director's commentary for the Criterion Collection, he and his creative crew did an explosive amount of legwork to get the details right. Coincidentally, W.S. Gilbert had similar designs on The Mikado, the making of which is the focus of Topsy Turvy's plot, as we see with his insistence that singers abandon their corsets for a proper hang of their kimonos, though as we know from the plot of the work, the operetta is--in Leigh's words--"As Japanese as steak-and-kidney pie."

Scottish actor Kevin McKidd, who plays tenor Durward Lely (the original Nanki-Poo) went to Lely's own hometown in Scotland to further research his character, even going so far as to read an unpublished autobiography. He also wears a talisman in the film that once belonged to Lely himself. Leigh, who also wrote the screenplay, did as much research as possible and, barring an obvious historical explanation or budget crunches, used educated guesses to fill in the holes along the way. There are the odd, relatively minor, anachronisms (such as calling the capital of Norway "Oslo" when, in the setting of the film, it would have still been called "Christiania") but the heart of Gilbert and Sullivan's world beats strongly.

3. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner: In terms of actors, there isn't a single broken bulb on this manifold strand of lights. Even in tiny roles, such as Sullivan's manservant or Gilbert's dentist, each performer knows their character inside and out. However, a film about Gilbert and Sullivan obviously requires two impeccable male leads, which Leigh landed in well-known British thesp Jim Broadbent as Gilbert and Swedish-born actor Allan Corduner as Sullivan.

Though much of Topsy Turvy's title owes to the nature of Gilbert's chocolate-box libretti, there is also a Janus-like duality in the relationship between composer and dramatist. Gilbert is an irascible, anxious introvert while Sullivan is a boisterous bon vivant--a personality affliction that, coupled with pre-show rituals of coffee, cigarettes and morphine, led to his eventual undoing hinted at in the film. Broadbent and Corduner capture these personality traits to a T, but also have a chemistry between their characters that adds more meaning to their collaborative process and their legacy of operettas. Socially they may be oil and water, but artistically they came together like...well...Gilbert and Sullivan. Topsy Turvy could have easily glanced at these two historic figures superficially, but what Broadbent and Corduner mine from the personal lives behind these household names is what truly gives Topsy Turvy its gold standard.

What are your three reasons for Topsy Turvy's addition to the Criterion family? What other composer biopics deserve the same mantle? Leave your thoughts below.