Mike Leigh's new dramedy 'Another Year' stars Jim Broadbent as half of an affectionate, long-married couple, a role the actor comfortably inhabits, having played a few variations on it (including Leigh's own 'Life Is Sweet'). This is no knock on director or actor. Leigh, who has been entertaining us with his seriocomic slices of British life since 1988's 'High Hopes,' doesn't disappoint with his latest film, and Broadbent brings authentic charm and warmth to his character.
It's Leigh's third movie with Broadbent, whose diverse resume has spanned comedies high and low, romcoms, musicals, serious drama and Harry Potter; and whose seamless, subtle performances make him utterly believable in every role he plays.
Broadbent began working in film in the late 1970s, after appearing on stage and in television. He had small parts in several movies before co-starring in 'Life Is Sweet' (1990), playing a genial working-class cook with big dreams. Broadbent's immensely likable performance led to roles in higher profile films, including Mike Newell's 'Enchanted April,' Neil Jordan's 'The Crying Game' and Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway.' He perfectly portrayed pathetic nightclub owner/failed comedian Mr. Boo in 'Little Voice' (starring Jane Horrocks, his 'Life Is Sweet' daughter).
In 2000, Broadbent co-starred in Leigh's droll, enormously entertaining 'Topsy-Turvy' as W.S. Gilbert to Alan Corduner's Arthur Sullivan. The hilarious and poignant film depicted the celebrated musical duo's complicated relationship and their creation of the operetta 'The Mikado' amid the colorful world of Victorian musical theater.
It was quite a departure for Leigh, whose previous films were populated mainly by contemporary, working-class Londoners. 'Topsy-Turvy,' with its gorgeously ornate dialogue, proved he could very nicely handle a different era and milieu. He also showed a flair for musical sequences, as much of the film consists of brilliantly staged scenes from 'The Mikado,' performed by a splendid cast of actors, including Timothy Spall and Shirley Henderson.
As the often somber, officious -- yet witty -- librettist Gilbert, Broadbent is wonderful, his deep resonant voice doing full justice to Leigh's dialogue (Corduner is equally impressive as his polar opposite, the flamboyant, artsy Sullivan). The story takes place just as the formerly successful duo ('The Pirates of Penzance,' 'H.M.S. Pinafore') receive lukewarm response to their latest work, 'Princess Ida' (one reviewer refers to Gilbert as "The king of topsy-turvydom," due to his supernatural plot contrivances).
Perfectly happy to carry on with their patented formula, Gilbert can't understand Sullivan's frustrations or his yearning to compose more serious music. They discuss their differences with the utmost politesse, yet come to an impasse regarding future collaborations.
Gilbert's other main relationship is with his infinitely patient wife (the excellent Lesley Manville, also in 'Another Year'), who suggests a visit to a new Japanese exhibit. Here he's exposed to the exotic culture that would spawn 'The Mikado,' arguably G&S's greatest operetta. (In one scene he fools around with a newly purchased sword, impersonating the Japanese actors he's just seen. Slowly his face lights up with inspiration.)
'The Mikado's' rehearsal scenes are particularly amusing: One priggish actor (Kevin McKidd) objects to the brevity of his outfit, however authentically Japanese. "You have my sympathies," intones Gilbert, "but unfortunately your avocation as an actor compels you on occasion to endure the most ignominious indignities." In another, Gilbert brings three Japanese women to rehearsal in an attempt to influence his leading ladies. His finicky tenacity is matched by the sarcastic asides of the choreographer D'Auban, played with hilarious snideness by Andy Serkis.
Broadbent infuses the stuffy, upright Gilbert with humanity. At one point, his wife gently vents her frustration with their (seemingly) sexless relationship. She suggests a plot for his next show, clearly based on her own involuntarily childless life. His heavy face registers sadness and perhaps even shame, but he doesn't -- or can't -- let on.
The actor would go on to appear in 'Bridget Jones's Diary,' 'Moulin Rouge!' and 'Iris' (playing husband John Bayley to Judi Dench's Iris Murdoch), for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. It was a tremendous performance, as was his portrayal of controversial social crusader Lord Longford in the 2006 TV movie 'Longford,' but 'Topsy-Turvy' was truly a career-defining role.