(director/writer: Mike Leigh; cinematographer: Dick Pope; editor: Robin Sales; cast: Dorothy Atkinson (Jessie Bond), Jim Broadbent (W. S. Gilbert), Ron Cook (Richard D’Oyly Carte), Allan Corduner (Arthur Sullivan), Eleanor David (Fanny Ronalds), Shirley Henderson (Leonora Braham), Lesley Manville (Lucy “Kitty” Gilbert), Kevin McKidd (Durward Lely), Wendy Nottingham (Helen Lenoir), Martin Savage (George Grossmith), Timothy Spall (Richard Temple), Alison Steadman (Madame Leon), Jonathan Aris (Wilhelm), Dorothy Atkinson (Jessie Bond), Charles Simon (Gilbert’s ailing father); Runtime: 160; USA Films; 1999-UK)

“Musicals adapted as films don’t get any better than this offbeat one.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Mike Leigh’s valentine to the theater. It is a stunning period film on Gilbert and Sullivan, the remarkably successful and unique British musical duo during the Victorian era, whose partnership ran from 1871 until 1896.

This 160-minute musical epic is just right in length — the film was never dull for a second. It moves at its own very satisfying speed, enhanced by the magnificent musical arrangements of Carl Davis and replete with many hilarious episodes. It is richly photographed by Dick Pope; it has the eye-pleasing stage-work of Gary Yershon; the impeccable costumes are created by Lindy Hemming; and, there is the dazzling performances by all concerned, with special kudos to Jim Broadbent as the constantly sulking and cranky librettist William Schwenk Gilbert; Allan Corduner as the bon vivant, genius musical arranger, Sir Arthur Sullivan; and, Timothy Spall as a supporting actor, the lead baritone Dickie Temple.

Gilbert being the more business-minded partner of the two, is therefore relegated to being the watcher of the box-office receipts. He is also the demanding stage director and the one with the self-effacing humor; while, the newly knighted Sullivan is noted for his aristocratic integrity and of exuding pleasure in his work while performing, always smiling when conducting, even when coming off a sick bed to make the opening of a show. His mannerisms encourage a sense of gaiety for everybody around him.

The rest of the troupe, made up of many Leigh regulars, were all superb, including Shirley Henderson (a singer with problems offstage), Dorothy Atkinson (a soubrette), Wendy Nottingham (as the wizened business manager), Eleanor David (Sullivan’s lover with the know-how to take care of her pregnancy problem independently) and Martin Savage (the troupe’s star, highest paid performer and a drug user).

The film opens in 1884 with the D’Oyly Carte (Cook) production of the flop Princess Ida and will end with the much regaled The Mikado, a virtual gold mine for the two artists, that was first produced at the Savoy Theatre in 1885. After Ida, Gilbert was dubbed by the critics “the king of topsy-turvydom” (Topsy-Turvy was a successful play that Gilbert wrote, one that his critics and Sullivan are accusing him of repeating its staid formula in his newer works). Sullivan, at the same time, decided to stop writing music for light comic operettas and tried to reinvent himself while taking time off due to an illness for a vacation to France, which included a visit to a bordello. But he was determined when he returned to London, to do only serious musical compositions. It isn’t until D’Oyly Carte forces together the meeting of the two enormously rich and famous personalities he has under contract for the Savoy, who are coming off 10 straight hits, does Gilbert realize how serious the rupture in the relationship is.

Leigh makes this into a story about what happens backstage during the rehearsals for The Mikado: capturing the arduous process of creating a Gilbert and Sullivan show from scratch, accurately depicting the petulance of the actors, the reality of the business side of show business, those dreaded rehearsals, and all the delicate balancing of egos that come into play as the director pushes for the performances he wants. It couldn’t be more real or more tempered with total affection for what the actor and writer must go through to get what they want out of their work. It is as good a story about the backstage happenings as any in films, and is so much superior than Shakespeare in Love which basically did the same thing last year and was rewarded with an Oscar.

The Gilbert and Sullivan reversal of misfortune begins when the prim Gilbert’s somewhat frustrated wife (Lesley Manville) coaxes him to see a London exhibition on Japanese culture where he watches a sword fight, drinks green tea, views the wearing of kimonos and watches the Kabuki. Returning home inspired, he has his servant hang a Japanese sword over his doorway; and, in a moment of great significance the sword falls to the floor and after feeling blue for some time after being dumped on by critics and Sullivan, he regains his lifeforce; it is like a moment of ‘satori’, as he glides confidently through the air with the sword and thereby The Mikado is born. It was amazingly well-done to watch his facial and bodily transformation from one of a slumping grouch to unmitigated joy in an instant, as his love for his work is written all over him.

As “The Mikado” goes into rehearsal Gilbert forcefully directs the play and the actors are just as brilliantly daunting whether rehearsing or cavorting backstage, or performing for an audience. One of Leigh’s pet themes over the years, is for actors to do improvisations. The actor works with the director to help enact the work and this teamwork is exemplified, as Gilbert listens to the cast when they tell him to put back the Mikado song he removed from Dickie’s act.

Gilbert intimidates them in his own inimical way to pronounce words like “persiflage”, to walk like the Japanese do, and to stop wearing corsets. His meaty part couldn’t be played to greater perfection, in a performance that is memorable, making it difficult not to think of Broadbent whenever the name Gilbert will now be mentioned. He won Best Actor at the 1999 Venice Film Festival. Topsy-Turvy captured Best Director and Best Film honors in the New York Film Critic Awards.

But with the success of The Mikado, Gilbert tells his wife that he can’t handle such happiness “There’s something inherently disappointing about success.” This is the same Gilbert who calls his mother, “The vicious woman who bore me into this ridiculous world.”

Musicals adapted as films don’t get any better than this offbeat one. Leigh directs like the master he is, someone who is at the pinnacle of his career. He is so sure of what he is doing and the film is so well researched for authenticity without having to put the story line in a period straight jacket, that it retains a refreshingly modern attitude despite being properly set in Victorian times. Leigh has so definitively caught the orneriness of the two huge personalities, arguably the very best popular writer-composer team ever, that he doesn’t have to include every dispute in their life to show how volatile their relationship was. He does not mention their famous courtroom dispute over a carpet in the Savoy Theater that fractured their delicate relationship for three years until they reunited, but were never successful again despite their return together. The beauty of the film, making it so much more than the typical musical, is that the director caught the characters as they were in the environment of Victorian society and allowed it to add a socio-historical perspective to the backstage dramatics of the theater people and to the travails of the G & S partnership. This historical perspective was depicted by flashing the newspaper headline of the death of General Gordon and his men in the Khartoum massacre on the screen and then the film zeroes in on some actors stuffing themselves on oysters, basking in the bourgeois society the Empire has made possible for them in England.

But the director’s main point wasn’t political as it usually is, he merely wishes to show what a colossal effort it is to put on a stage show and that G & S individually would have undoubtedly found great success alone; but, it is only with their collaboration that their success is so magnificent and, that we should be grateful for what their partnership gave the world. I’m also grateful that Leigh made this film. I felt just wonderful leaving the theater. I knew that I saw something special.