Happiness is an elusive quality in a Mike Leigh film. Sometimes, in his films, you will meet characters who try to cheer other people up, but there is usually a darker side to their perkiness. The photographer who tries to get people to smile in Secrets and Lies is stressed out by conflicts within his family; the woman who provides illegal abortions in Vera Drake naively tells her clients they will all be “right as rain” after she has left, and is caught off-guard when one of them almost dies thanks to her efforts; and when Gilbert & Sullivan premiere their latest musical comedy in Topsy-Turvy, a depressed Gilbert responds to the applause by privately grumbling to his neglected wife, “There’s something inherently disappointing about success.”
Well, here’s a how-de-do. British director Mike Leigh is well-known for his working-class dramas, such as Naked and Secrets and Lies, and for his uniquely improvisational approach to making them, whereby he and his actors take a premise and follow their characters’ impulses wherever they may lead. But in Topsy-Turvy, Leigh applies his technique to a true story, and of all things, it’s a richly-detailed costume drama about Gilbert and Sullivan.