I can't even tell you how much I adore this movie. It is practically perfect in every way, chock full of details of the Victorian era (love the description of eleven-year-old Winston Churchill as "covered in freckles, and has a total disdain for authority"), overflowing with witty period dialogue ("And now, sir, I am going in search of some Italian hokey-pokey, and I care not who knows it."), and positively teeming with the wonderful music of Arthur Sullivan (often accompanied by the clever words of W.S. Gilbert).
One of the things I love the most about this movie is the level of painstaking research, which a film about people and stories familiar to so many could hardly have done without. Almost all of the characters are (or were, rather) real people and many elements of the story are based on historical events. No doubt some artistic license was taken (for instance, I believe "The Lost Chord" was written several years before it is presented as debuting in the film), but I get the impression that it was not a large amount for this movie. Mostly just filling in a few blanks, I should think.
There are lots of familiar faces here, three of them from Harry Potter films - Jim Broadbent as W.S. Gilbert, Timothy Spall as Richard Temple, and Shirley Henderson as Leonora Braham. Kevin McKidd, of Grey's Anatomy fame (and Rome and the short-lived Journeyman) plays lead performer Durward Lely, who cannot sing without his corset. Martin Savage (perhaps known better to you Brits) is beyond wonderful as the famous George Grossmith. LOTR fans may or may not recognize Andy Serkis as choreographer John D'Auban. Ron Cook plays D'Oyly Carte, owner of the Savoy Theater. Jim Broadbent's Another Year co-star Lesley Manville here plays his wife, "Kitty" Gilbert. And those of you who revere, as I do, the classic BBC production of Pride and Prejudice will recognize Mrs. Bennett (a/k/a Alison Steadman) as Madame Leon, the costumer. Another interesting Potter connection is that Alan Corduner, pictured below as Arthur Sullivan, has provided voice work for almost all of the Harry Potter video games, doing voices for Filch, Snape, and Flitwick.
The plot is your average backstage drama. We meet both Gilbert and Sullivan at the height of their popularity, after the successes of most of their well-known productions - The Pirates of Penzance, The Sorcerer, HMS Pinafore, Patience, Iolanthe ... you know, all those ones about duty (they're all about duty). Due to Sullivan's ill health and subsequent trip abroad, combined with a an impasse with Gilbert over the "topsy-turvydom" that defined most of their past work together (including Gilbert's latest libretto, which employs the use of a magic lozenge, thought by Sullivan to be too similar to the magical device in The Sorcerer), the Savoy Theatre which puts on their operas faces a dilemma. Their latest Gilbert and Sullivan opera, Princess Ida, is not as successful as previous efforts, owing both to the repetitive nature of the story and an especially hot London summer which has kept many patrons away. And for the first time since the theater opened, they will have no new opera to replace Ida when it closes (again, this is all based on the actual events and circumstances). Producer Richard D'Oyly Carte revives The Sorcerer to buy some time, but says in no uncertain terms that his theater is not in the business of revivals and that some compromise must be reached soon.
About this time, the Japanese Village in Knightsbridge opens, taking advantage of English fascination with Japan following the opening of trade between the countries. Gilbert reluctantly accompanies his wife to the exhibit in Humphreys' Hall, and after a katana sword he purchased there falls off its hanging place in his study, he is struck with inspiration. I love this scene in the movie, by the way. Broadbent takes the sword and play-acts the part of a samurai for a bit before setting it on the desk to be rehung later. The camera closes in on his face as he looks at the sword, and we hear the faint opening strains of "Behold the Lord, High Executioner" as the light of inspiration fills his eyes, followed by a peek at a song he is about to write from what will be his most successful collaboration with Arthur Sullivan, The Mikado.
Over the course of the rest of the film, we're introduced to various performers in the D'Oyly Carte company, as well as people working backstage, and see various rehearsals and costume fittings, peppered with musical numbers from the opera itself. And these, combined with the struggles in the first part of the film, serve to really invest the viewer in the success of the performance. That's a difficult thing to pull off, but it works remarkably well here. I love how the musical numbers of woven throughout, instead of just a concert dump in the third act. For example, the scene pictured above is a performance of "Three Little Maids," which we see in rehearsal. Gilbert brings in three Japanese women to watch the original choreography, which is cute but not remotely Japanese. He then has the three women replace the actresses and move down the stage, which they do very timidly and gigglingly, and which inspires the eventual staging of the scene, which we see immediately after that rehearsal.
There are many standout scenes, but two in particular that I'm even more fond of than the rest. First is the scene where the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus persuade Gilbert to reinstate a previously cut solo, the only solo that had been written for the eponymous Mikado (who is played by Temple, a/k/a Timothy Spall). The second, and undoubtedly my favorite scene in the film, is very near the end, where Kitty Gilbert talks with her husband about the Mikado opening night and attempts to reach out and, well, woo her husband. The entire history of their marriage is written in this scene and on Lesley Manville's sad but hopeful face. Theirs is not a loveless marriage, but it is a childless and apparently a sexless one. They sleep in separate rooms, and presumably always have. Victorian propriety and probably personal awkwardness have kept them from any kind of intimacy, and what's strange is that you get the impression that each of them would like to have that kind of relationship, but they seem to have lived in polite frigidity so long that neither of them knows how to go about it. A beautiful scene, and a heartbreaking one.
This is getting a Criterion release this March with lots of tantalizing special features (*bounces*), but you can also see it for free on Hulu, if you don't mind the occasional commercial interruption. If you have ever been involved in any way with the theater or enjoy backstage tales like Shakespeare in Love or A Chorus Line, I would highly, highly recommend it. It is rated R, for "a scene of risque nudity" which isn't terribly essential to the story, but I think is a significant moment of character sketching.
I leave you with one of many brilliantly written and performed scenes from this delightful movie - and another example of how the songs are juxtaposed with the backstage moments. Watch how Kevin McKidd gets even Scottish-er at the peak of his anger. :P