Since looks can always be deceiving, we’re frequently reminded to never judge a book by its cover or take something at face value without first taking it with a grain of salt. Yet in addition to possessing a small kernel of truth, another reason why idioms are so popular is because there’s one for any given occasion and every single justification.
Therefore, when it comes to bewitching first impressions and questions of truth and beauty, The Criterion Collection reminds us that there are exceptions to every rule.
For as admired as the staggering cinematic releases are for what’s on the inside – in the form of history’s greatest motion pictures – Criterion discs are also cherished for their appearance on the outside the dazzling boxes, even spawning an online community of fan-made fake images where artistically inclined individuals upload their own photo imitations of Criterion’s museum quality covers.
Thus in addition to preserving, restoring and showcasing the globe’s most influential, auspicious and groundbreaking titles, the creative presentation of each new Criterion addition bridges the film world with the art world, bringing devotees works of art in works of art.
And the high-level of imagination on display in the collection’s cover art is especially apparent with the debut Criterion release of British filmmaker Mike Leigh’s Oscar winning Gilbert and Sullivan Mikado era biopic, Topsy-Turvy.
By honoring the country and culture that inspired the duo’s most acclaimed opera in a Japanese nineteenth-century woodblock print-style Joge-e or “two-way” illustration depicting one man from one angle and the other vice versa, Criterion simultaneously pays homage to the titular topsy-turvydom technique on display in Gilbert’s whimsical “two-way,” “up-and-down” Joge-e-like librettos wherein one thing magically transforms into something different altogether.
And with this frame of reference in mind, you can very well judge the film by artist Yuko Shimizu’s sublime cover since instead of composing a traditional period piece, Leigh used an artistic medium to chronicle the artistic process, making a work that was less concerned with biopic rigors and more focused on “what we do… [and] what we all go through” to create art.
In its initial release, Topsy-Turvy seemed to mark a bold departure from Leigh’s modern-minded daring art-house house fodder (Naked and Secrets & Lies).
However, after being given the opportunity to revisit both the director’s first foray into costume drama as well as his sole flirtation with cinematic biographical portraiture more than a decade after I first screened it (on VHS, no less), I now feel that despite the fact that it concerns different lives lived long ago, it’s one of Mike Leigh’s most personal endeavors.
Had the movie been helmed by a more timid director, it's safe to assume that they may have adhered to a classic cookie cutter approach. Yet Leigh visibly welcomed the chance to depict onscreen the offscreen filmmaking technique for which he is most well-known -- celebrating his love of imaginative discovery and passion for the artistic process as a joyful yet time-intensive collaboration -- which he uses to construct each and every one of his movies.
And amazingly, by staying stylistically, structurally and compositionally true to his roots, Leigh didn’t even let the demands of a biopic get in the way of his improvisational workshop technique wherein the director and his talented ensemble cast spend months in pre-production putting the film together piece-by-piece before Leigh even translates it into screenplay format.
In fact, the actors were so committed to authenticity that in the six-month workshop period, the cast soaked up period language training to be able to believably incorporate their research into improvisation in character.
Always an actor-friendly filmmaker, Topsy-Turvy finds Leigh at the height of his Altmanesque powers, taking a McCabe-like delight in his desire “to subvert the chocolate box subject” of period movies through the “combination of realism [and] some kind of heightened eccentricity” to, as film critic Amy Taubin surmised “take what in Britain is referred to as Heritage culture and give it a decidedly non-Heritage treatment.”
While fortunately it isn’t as crass as Altman’s glamour-less western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the revisionist influence is subtly on display from his decision to break free for a moment from the fittingly male-centric work that had previously focused on Gilbert and Sullivan in order to give us a glimpse into the lives of three women in their orbit in the concluding act.
Likewise, Leigh’s penchant for realism and dedication to the nature of art pays off extremely well since while admittedly, Topsy is steeped in the facts surrounding the inception and production of The Mikado, on a broader level, through our vicarious journey with Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sullivan (Allan Corduner), Leigh poses bigger queries about the industry of creativity.
As such, Topsy-Turvy remains incredibly timely – much more so than most backstage trifles – for examining the timeless battle between art and commerce with regard to how much emphasis should be on the money in show business to the industry-wide tendency to self-medicate to the toll that the personal lives of all involved take when at war with the artistic muse.
However, because it takes slightly longer than necessary to get going once we move backstage at the Savoy Theatre, the 160 minute film could’ve certainly benefited from another week in the editing room. Yet despite the fact that Topsy-Turvy occasionally loses some of its overall focus by dwelling on petty squabbles and conflicts among the supporting cast, overall it’s a masterfully executed production.
Arriving on Criterion Collection disc along with the separate, related debut of the 1939 film The Mikado, Topsy-Turvy’s stunning Blu-ray release is heightened by superlative technical specs on the lush high-definition transfer which was supervised by cinematographer Dick Pope.
Featuring filmmaker commentary, footage from its ‘99 debut, and a Leigh directed short written by and starring Jim Broadbent, this release of Topsy-Turvy -- complete with one of the collection’s most beguiling images in recent memory -- reminds you that every now and then you can judge something by its cover or take it on one of its two face values because Criterion remains the exception to every rule.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.