Lovers of costume drama and light operetta are in for a treat. And so are people who can’t stand either art form, thanks to Mike Leigh, more usually known as a purveyor of working-class drama to the realm. Taking as its starting point the creative roadblock reached by the librettist WS Gilbert and his writing partner, the composer Arthur Sullivan, after the relative failure of their Princess Ida in 1884, Leigh’s film follows the duo as they struggle towards the rejuvenating success of The Mikado. Leigh’s trick is to cleverly weave the composer/librettist’s full antler stand-off – Gilbert wanted to write an opera called The Magic Lozenge; Sullivan most definitely didn’t – with an oblique commentary on our own age’s attitudes towards foreign cultures and techno-gadgetry. Running through the film is Leigh’s obvious regard for the librettist’s facility with a lyric, Gilbert’s rhythms as near to rapping as Victorians got. Plus his enthusiasm for Gilbert and Sullivan’s often disparaged collaborations; Leigh serves the musical numbers straight up and wink-free – there’s not a dry irony in the house. All this and a stone-faced Jim Broadbent, playing a bluff Gilbert to Allan Corduner’s waspish Sullivan – two more reasons to go see.
© Steve Morrissey 2000