March 02, 2000



ACTOR'S ACTOR: Jim Broadbent


Life Drawing


by Rob Kendt


What's in a name? On the surface, Jim Broadbent's is almost cruelly accurate: He's a broad, sturdy figure, and he's also engagingly bent-not so much physically as emotionally, as he's played his share of pathetic slouches and pent-up control freaks. In his latest, universally lauded screen performance in Mike Leigh's film Topsy-Turvy, Broadbent brings to vivid, definitive life the formidable W.S. Gilbert, the librettist half of the Victorian musical duo Gilbert and Sullivan, during the period when the partnership nearly foundered over creative differences but bounced back in 1885 with the masterful The Mikado.


Broadbent's Gilbert is the sort of physically striking and fully shaded performance that has characterized his best work-from the plunkingly decent working-class galoot of Leigh's Life Is Sweet to the preternaturally alert barkeep in The Crying Game, from the frighteningly unfunny alcoholic comic in Little Voice to the laughably food-crazy but sex-averse actor in Bullets Over Broadway. Pacing about like a constipated walrus, Broadbent's Gilbert is a meticulous theatrical autocrat with a narrow but fanciful and childlike Victorian mind; he is fiercely determined in his work and awkwardly, almost morbidly dubious in his private moments.


In a film that is by and large a methodical and unrevealing biopic, Broadbent's work stands out as the performance of a lifetime-especially in the sense that it seems to embody, with epic delicacy, not only Gilbert but the world that shaped him.

"We did a whole psychological breakdown on Gilbert," said Broadbent in a recent interview from Australia, where he's shooting Baz Luhrmann's new musical Moulin Rouge. Indeed, Leigh's film had a research department to assist the filmmakers and performers with every detail of both G&S scholarship and the Victorian period. "We looked at what evidence there was about him, looked at his comic verse-there are an awful lot of clues that come out. I looked at his essays and correspondence. What we put on the screen seemed to add up as a man who found that personal side of his life very hard to deal with."


Indeed, the film shows us Gilbert's strained dealings with his aging parents and his overly courtly relationship with his wife, Kitty, whom he uses more as a prop of support in his doubting moments than he does as a conjugal comfort. Leigh's film suggests, without overstating the case, that Gilbert lived the Victorian stereotype of sexual repression and sublimation, instead pouring his energy into his work. And at its best, Broadbent's splendidly preoccupied performance shows us both the understandable appeal, and the terrible human toll, of such self-denial.


"He was a complicated, troubled man whose work was his salvation," concluded Broadbent of Gilbert.


The question for an actor who has seemingly lent his whole towering self to each of his roles-especially in the Mike Leigh films, since Leigh famously includes his cast in the process of creating the film's script and characters-is, How much of Jim Broadbent is there in W.S. Gilbert, and vice versa?


"I'm not complicated or troubled," Broadbent said with a laugh. "And I don't know if my work is my salvation, either." Even so, in the process of making a Mike Leigh film, in which a "character develops organically" through meetings and improvisations with the director, Broadbent admitted that he has been known to bring the work home with him.

"Actually, my wife tells me I wasn't quite so bad with Gilbert as she thought I'd be-not as bad as I was on Life Is Sweet, when I was apparently pretty terrible at home, insufferably in character."


And for all his protestations, Broadbent believes in the craft he's developed, first at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, then over decades onstage in everything from modern classics at London's National Theatre to his own outrageous sketchy comedy duo "the National Theatre of Brent," and finally in the modestly booming international film and TV career he's developed since his debut in Jerzy Skolimowski's The Shout.


"I see acting as a creative rather than an interpretive job," he said. "Partly that's because I did so much co-writing (with Patrick Barlow) in the National Theatre of Brent, and in other things I've done, like the Mike Leigh films. I'm used to the collaborative process, and I'm more interested in jobs that call on me to bring something to them. But some directors don't want anything but the lines. They're bloody difficult men, directors."


Difficult indeed: There's a memorable scene in Topsy-Turvy in which Gilbert, in formal top hat and tails, repeatedly puts a quartet of actors through the paces of one of The Mikado's frothy dialogue scenes. The actors are on book, a little ragged, still finding their way in their line readings and blocking-while the straightbacked, indefatigable Gilbert knows every word, every inflection, every step he wants, and expects the actors to execute them. Did Broadbent base Gilbert's unwavering directorial certitude on anyone he knows, perhaps?


"He's a mixture of a lot of directors, writers, and producers I've known," Broadbent said diplomatically. "You need to draw on several people to cover somebody as complex as Gilbert."


In his rich, human-scaled drawings of larger-than-life men, Broadbent has proven himself a master artist.