I actually started watching this film close to a month ago, but got distracted–then, after a month of working weekends and a determination to read myself back up to and then through Jo Nesbø’s Snømannen (aka The Snowman) prior to the theatrical adaptation’s release in a week,¹ I finally returned to it. It had already taken me somewhat off guard: I knew Mike Leigh by general reputation, and that that reputation mostly centered upon the kind of material I’ve actually seen, specifically, All or Nothing, a slice-of-life type drama about modern England (or at least then-modern in 2002). Now that I write that and realize this came out earlier, my entire worldview is clearly wrong. Oh well.
Famed Savoy theatre collaborators W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) have achieved fame in 1884, but the most recent production of their work, Princess Ida, is not up to the expectations of the theatre’s founder and owner, Richard D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) and his business manager, Helen Lenoir (Wendy Nottingham). As such, the two are asked to write a new work. Sullivan, having recently struggled with his health, feels the tug of a vague magnum opus–something above the “tospy-turvydom” of his work with Gilbert, who has returned with a libretto that Sullivan feels is simply too reminiscent of their famous The Sorceror. Happenstance experience pushes a new inspiration to Gilbert that breathes new life into their collaboration: Japanese culture.
Curiously, I managed top stop the film just as it finished setting up the nature of the world of the Savoy Theatre–the actors, Richard Temple (Timothy Spall), George Grossmith (Martin Savage), Durward Lely (Kevin McKidd), Jessie Bond (Dorothy Atkinson), Leonora Braham (Shirley Henderson), Sybil Grey (Cathy Sara), Rosina Brandram (Louise Gold); the choreographer John D’Auban (Andy Serkis); the stage manager Barker (Sam Kelly); and assorted friends, family and mistresses–and restart in time to see Gilbert inspired. Sheer chance, I’d say, but it did bring home that interesting fact: Leigh devotes a very significant period of time to establishing the entire world and environment that Gilbert and Sullivan occupy. We understand a great deal about how their work influences the people in their personal lives and how it affects all of the other people employed by the Savoy, and, while it centers around the conception and initial run of The Mikado, it does not sacrifice its characters to that plot, nor hurriedly rush toward it.
In watching the Criterion-included supplemental materials, there’s an interview with Leigh (and composer Gary Yershon, who worked with Leigh later in that role, but here appeared only briefly as a pianist) where he lays out plainly his intentions in film–a sensibility that not only backed up my still ephemeral understanding of his work, but also my initial impression of the film. The decision to avoid leaning so completely on Gilbert and Sullivan (despite the strength of Broadbent and Corduner) fulfills all of that, just as he says he intends to do in his work, and in his less “familiarly centered” works, like All or Nothing, that don’t include figures so known that their names are near-inseparable and don’t need their totality to be identified. We don’t short-change the actors, choreographers, mistresses, families, bystanders–indeed, not even The Mikado‘s chorus (as Leigh himself notes: the chorus is antithetical to his “worldview”, as a “fascist” grouping of unspecified humanity). This attitude, along with numerous touches regarding Victorian society, manage to fully round out the world that these people–I almost said characters, which wouldn’t be wrong, as these aren’t the literal people they portray, of course, but they’re still more defined than many a character–inhabit. We see discussions and itneractions surrounding sex, drugs, finances, and are of course steeped in the linguistic affectations of a society devoted in many ways to niceties, manners, and etiquette. Few shy away from having sharp tongues or wit, but all of it, like negotiations and conflict, is infused with the manoeuvring that comes with impersonal and professional interactions.
There’s something odd in a few of them: Shirley Henderson’s performance is apparently acclaimed, but the cloyingly childish and pinched nature of her delivery (perhaps how she gets around her Scottish accent to an English one? I’ve no idea) feels overdone when performed in all situations, including those of her as woman, rather than as “actress in the moment of her occupation”. Serkis, too, is almost insanely overboard as the “eccentric” D’Auban–Leigh notes that he was apparently known in reality for such things, but still comes off absurd. The production doesn’t sink or even wobble around the two, somewhat bizarrely: Serkis prances around a stage of people acting far more subdued, and yet they seem to be accepting of his peculiarities, and contain them in some respect so that it doesn’t clash. And, on that note of clashes, there’s a dash of the cultural clash that is The Mikado –there’s much covered quite neatly on Wikipedia–when Gilbert brings visiting Japanese people from the famed Knightsbridge exhibition, in one of his many attempts to “authenticize” the production. The reactions of the cast and crew, as well as the understandable confusion of the people he brings in–who don’t speak English–are amusing notes in nodding at this.
It was fascinating to see how Leigh contended with a period piece, and indeed infused it with his own attitudes and perspectives. A biopic, of a kind, too, rendered in the individualistic, humanizing perspective of Leigh, who both wrote and directed. Unexpected at a minimum, but certainly entertaining, this one.
¹I’m a bit over halfway through it, with the preceding six books read or re-read, if you’re wondering. And planning to go finish it after writing this.