THEY WERE STUCK, at an impasse. After the lukewarm reception of their 1884 Princess Ida, composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and playwright Sir William Schwenck Gilbert were pulling in different directions. Sullivan—hymnist, cantata-concocter, oratorio-monger par excellence—yearned to serve God, Queen, and Country by writing an English grand opera. (He eventually did produce Ivanhoe, a piece that surpasses his work with Gilbert only in pretentiousness.) Gilbert was weary of being known as "the king of topsy-turvy-dom," a stage confectioner of entertaining paradoxes and implausibilities.
Expectant parents: Allan Corduner (Sullivan) and Jim Broadbent (Gilbert) gestate The Mikado.
written and directed by Mike Leigh
wiith Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, and Timothy Spall
opens January 21 at Broadway Market
Yet in Mike Leigh's long but already award-winning new film, the first post-Ida libretto Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) offers Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is a dud. This sparkle-free affair hinges on a tired old plowhorse of a plot device: a magic potion that transforms a bunch of Sicilian villagers. (Gilbert eventually did find a composer to set The Mountebanks in 1891. Never heard of it? Well, there you are.) Then Gilbert's wife drags her demoralized husband to a Japanese exhibition, and—bang!—he writes the greatest G&S show of their long partnership.
The meticulous, prolific Leigh is best known in this country for Secrets & Lies (1996), and here his penchant for large casts, closely observed detail, and extensive actor rehearsal is again on display. His leisurely and luscious retelling of the birth of The Mikado transcends the usual composer biopic—a genre not ordinarily known for historical accuracy. Fortunately, Leigh doesn't have to punch up this story, already blessed with colorful characters and a natural dramatic arc from struggle to success. As usual, his script is grounded in real-life detail, as when Sullivan expresses his artistic frustration in dialogue largely taken from the composer's actual letters.
Corduner's affable, high-living Sullivan sports fluffy muttonchops and a wistful grin that reaches three-quarters of the way around his head. His sociability contrasts with Broadbent's taciturn Gilbert, who immerses himself in work as a refuge from messy personal relationships. Generous excerpts from G&S shows dot the film—all affectionately staged, though you do get some idea why Ida didn't quite cut it. The members of Gilbert's troupe—who seem to carry their own footlights with them wherever they go—are played with dizzying flair. G&S fans especially will relish the chance to see legendary names like George Grossmith and Leonora Braham, the original Ko-Ko and Yum-Yum, brought to life as The Mikado heads to its triumphant conclusion.