Three More Reasons: Topsy Turvy

Friday, June 24, 2011 - 12:00 AM

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.

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Comments [5]

One of my coworkers just smacked me with a rolled-up paper for my comment! Haha, I should have mentioned Kevin McKidd was cast as the tenor playing Nanki-Poo, but the stage makeup is so hilarious that Nanki-Poos sort of overwhelms my memory of the other role.

Jun. 28 2011 09:03 AM

Recently had the pleasure of seeing Topsy Turvy. My three reasons?

1. Andy Sirkis as the can-of-worms coach.

2. The weird but brilliant casting of Timothy Spall as The Mikado.

3. The weirder casting of Kevin McKidd as Nanki-Poo -- which is weird only when seen in retrospect from his days in Rome.

Jun. 28 2011 09:03 AM
Les from Maplewood, NJ

I haven't seen "Topsy Turvy" - an omission which I will have to rectify. But I do wish that the Maurice Evans/Robert Morley "The Great Gilbert & Sullivan" was still available for viewing. The biographical material may have been a bit questionable, but the performances by the D'Oyly Carte company (including Martyn Green!) were phenomenal.

Jun. 25 2011 02:39 PM
Kathryn from Boston

Only three reasons?

1) It brings back memories of two vanished eras -- the times of G&S and the 1950s, when the D'Oyly Carte made regular visits to NYC, and reminds us that both eras were more complicated than we remember nostalgically.

2) It introduces the delightful music and lyrics of G&S to new audiences.

3) Reviews of new musicals often say that "the audience left the theatre humming the songs." This is the only movie I've ever seen where the audience came into the theatre humming -- and many of us were singing as we left.

A wonderful movie!

Jun. 25 2011 11:20 AM
David from Flushing

I would have been inclined to end the film as the curtain fell on the "Mikado." What follows does not seem to add that much to the story.

The bordello show in Topsy Turvy is certainly a gem of adult humor.

Jun. 24 2011 11:11 AM

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