Mike Leigh Digs Deep in Gilbert and Sullivan Biopic 'Topsy-Turvy'

These days the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan would be considered, as they say, an acquired taste. Blithe, frothy late-19th-century popular entertainments built around contrived plots, jaunty tunes, and tongue-tripping wordplay, H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance still occupy a fond spot in many nerdy hearts and do find their way to repertory stages occasionally, though usually as charming anachronisms.

It was startling, then, in 1999, when British filmmaker Mike Leigh premiered Topsy-Turvy, a film based on the lives of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan as they created their 1885 Orientalist operetta The Mikado. Leigh's work has always encompassed a thoroughgoing realistic approach to contemporary life, exemplified by rich ensemble films such as Naked, Secrets and Lies, and last year's Another Year. A period piece seemed out of character, let alone one about Gilbert and bloody Sullivan. Leave it to Mike Leigh to find a Mike Leigh film in this material, though. Recently reissued on Criterion Collection DVD and sumptuous Blu-ray, Topsy-Turvy encompasses not only the light-hearted fripperies of Gilbert and Sullivan's onstage world, but also the dramas and challenges and roiling emotions of their own lives.

As the film opens, Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sullivan (Allan Corduner) have become hugely successful from their string of collaborations, which have dominated the boards at the famed Savoy Theatre. But Sullivan feels he has a great opera in him and has grown tired of writing music for Gilbert's increasingly repetitive librettos. The impasse hardens and seems intractable, until Gilbert visits an exhibition of then-highly exotic Japanese culture in London, inspiring his faux-Japanese libretto for The Mikado, which in turn inspires Sullivan with its freshness. After some backstage drama, they launch the new production, which will go on to be one of their most successful and best-loved works.

As with any Leigh film, however, a plot summary barely covers what's there to be experienced. What he does here is, in effect, to expose the blood and tears, the effort and heartache that go into even the most light-hearted art, much less the average life. The prickly Gilbert spars with the affable Sullivan, but his real troubled bond proves to be with his devoted wife Lucy (Leslie Manville), whom he inadvertently all but freezes out of his affections. Corduner's Sullivan is a bit of a libertine, but Leigh also reveals his poor health and spends a few moments on his tres modern but unsettled relationship with his mistress (Eleanor David).

Likewise, the actors and actresses who inhabit the dressing rooms of the Savoy (including Timothy Spall, Kevin McKidd, and Shirley Henderson) aren't period figures or two-dimensional background players, but people with foibles and vices and hopes and insecurities, many of which come into play before opening night. As much as Topsy-Turvy is about the color and pageantry of The Mikado onstage, Leigh also offers a series of devastating close-ups of these bewhiskered, corseted figures at their most uncertain and vulnerable. In all, it's a deeply, surprisingly affecting film—and those Sullivan tunes will stick in your head for weeks.

Criterion recently released another film on DVD and Blu-ray that, frankly, seems more like Leigh's usual speed. Writer/director Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank centers on 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis), who lives with her single mum Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and foul-mouthed little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) in a British high-rise public housing project. Arnold's camera usually finds Mia in motion—stalking grim-faced along the grotty sidewalks in her baggy sweats, dancing to hip-hop in an abandoned flat, racing up and down the stairs with ponytail a-bob. Even her favorite top has a striped pattern that seems to vibrate in the lens. The irony is, of course, that she's going nowhere. She isn't much for school, and her dreams of dancing seem remote at best. No wonder she's drawn to the gaunt horse chained up in a vacant lot; he counts as a rare kindred spirit.

Joanne probably had Mia when she wasn't much older than her daughter, and as such is young and attractive enough to draw the attention of Conor (It actor Michael Fassbender), a lean-hipped and charming suitor. A semi-stable male figure, especially one so appealing, galvanizes the women of the household. This is a good thing, especially for Mia, until it isn't; Fish Tank heads in some wouldn't-do-to-reveal directions from there. But Arnold's clear-eyed direction and some sterling performances, most especially from Fassbender and utter newcomer Jarvis, create a compelling coming-of-age tale whose few too-neat tinges are far outweighed by its emotional weight and slowly revealed truths. After all, as Mia learns, when it comes to life, sometimes you've got to save your own.