A biopic of the lives of operetta composers Gilbert and Sullivan during the years they were working on the Mikado.
While we're all overjoyed by the return to the big time of character-driven films with fresh, unpredictable stories, let us not forget that Mike Leigh has been making them for more than 25 years. The acknowledged master of contemporary tragi-comedy makes what seems like an uncharacteristic departure from his creative manor for a study of Gilbert and Sullivan during the year of collaboration on their comic opera The Mikado - and turns the musical biopic on its head for a hilarious, tender, intimately detailed and passionately humane panoply of life that is, quite simply, superb.
Following the mediocre reception accorded their Princess Ida in 1884, composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (Corduner) tells writer William Gilbert (Broadbent) and impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) that he is breaking up their renowned partnership to write serious opera. But after a visit to a Japanese exhibition stokes Gilbert's fire, his romantic comedy of deception and disguise, peopled by Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum, Pooh-Bah and the great and powerful Mikado, charms Sullivan back to the Savoy Theatre and production gets underway, to debut in 1885.
Superficially, that's all the plot. But it's almost none of the story, which flits gracefully through an inspired ensemble for wistful vignettes and wacky incidents, sad soliloquy and public gaiety, gathering impressions of artists and their creative demons, life on the stage and back of it.
Gilbert is its centre, and Broadbent's is a magnificent portrayal of a complex comic genius, gifted with wit but with a limited capacity to take joy from it. Besides him it's almost criminal to single out delicious performances, but newcomer Martin Savage as the company's drug-dependent comedian is a real discovery and little Shirley Henderson (best known as Robert Carlyle's love interest in Hamish Macbeth) is a revelation as the alcoholic soprano (the actors do their own singing, by the way, with surprising excellence).
All life is here, with and without songs: Gilbert grappling with his latest gadget (a telephone!) and his eccentric family's disputes; D'Oyly Carte raising finance for a hotel he outrageously proposes shall have a bathroom for every bedroom (The Savoy!); bon vivant Sullivan enjoying R&R in a Parisian brothel; the hysterical dressing room double act of Timothy Spall and Kevin McKidd laced into corsets and swapping gossip, embodying the vanity, pretension and fragility of actors.
Leigh's observations of people's contradictions, tics, desires, pettiness and pain have never been sketched with more delicacy, drollery or deeply felt insight. Its a masterpiece. And the tunes are pretty good, too.
Rightly showered with awards, this is fabulous study of the characters that inhabit the theatrical world.