Mike Leigh is a highly respected artist in the worlds of film and theatre. Since directing his first film in 1971, he has developed a very specific method for making movies. Starting with a premise, he gathers together a group of actors (most of whom he has worked with before) and spends months in rehearsals developing ideas organically into a final shooting script. His films are shot in the present, naturalistically in real settings about regular people. He reached his peak with “Secrets and Lies”, which received five Oscar nominations, including Best Director and Best Screenplay for Leigh, himself.
Then, he made “Career Girls”. A little backlash set in. It didn’t do so well commercially and critics were sniping that he was in a rut. What was Leigh to do? Perhaps a change of pace was in order. Leigh took on what would become this movie. This is a historical drama based upon real people and real events, requiring much historical research. It’s about William Schwenk Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner), two celebrated and respected artists of the theatre in the back-half of their careers who have a critical flop and need a change of pace and inspiration to get their act together again. Hmmm.
Gilbert wrote the words and the story while Sullivan wrote the music for a series of celebrated comic light-operas. The film opens in 1884 with the opening of their “Princess Ida”. It doesn’t go well. The pair are in a rut. Sullivan sees the need to do something new, and doesn’t want to do it with Gilbert. It takes a long while for the stubborn Gilbert to see the problem. Their producer, Richard D’Oyley Carte (Ron Cook) and their stock company of actors are quite worried.
Finally, Gilbert’s wife Lucy (Lesley Manville) drags her husband to a Japanese exhibition. He’s soon engrossed and finds the inspiration for one of the duo’s most celebrated works, “The Mikado”. The last hour of the film reveals the not the process by which they get their work on paper, but how they get it in front of the audience. The pair staged and directed their own works, and we see all the hard work and little choices it takes to reach their triumphant opening night. We also learn that one of the secrets of their success is a division of duties that means working together means never having to be in the same room at the same time.
The real magic of this film is in the way most of the characters skillfully navigate their way around each other’s sizable but fragile egos. It’s this amazing interaction of characters that’s the hallmark of Leigh and his style of development. I’m sure part of the magic is supposed to be the stagings of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Unfortunately, if you weren’t a high school theatre geek, something as highly stylized as G & S may not be quite the thrill that it is for others. Still, for a movie over two and a half hours, it zips along quickly and agreeably enough, and the stunning recreation of Victorian life and the fully realized characters are the real focus of the film. At least when Mike was getting his groove back he remembered the real goal was to be entertaining.