Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Marion Bailey, Dorothy Atkinson, Lesley Manville
Runtime: 149 minutes
Release: October 31st
Mr. Turner opens with a lengthy tracking shot of two women strolling and making casual, good-natured conversation in Dutch against a shaggy but near-unremarkable countryside backdrop which almost as an aside, is being rendered sublime on canvas nearby. The impressionistic work of the titular Mr. Turner, with its brilliant contrasting use of light and colour and easy, open composition, transforms the potentially-mundane into something thought-provoking and resonant –not too dissimilar to how Mike Leigh is operating here.
The film takes a narratively unusual approach to a biopic, and rather than depict the beginning, middle, and end of the artist’s career, Leigh opts to focus on the last twenty or so years of JMW Turner’s life. The structure of Leigh’s film, starting in medias res and without any central driving plot points, is bold and unusual and risks accusations of dullness, but in terms of depicting Turner’s life, feels appropriate and adequate. Each narrative event feels equally weighted, from the death of his father, to grand royal exhibitions of his art, to encounters with patrons, rivals, and the women in his life.
A well-known member of the artistic establishment, with a strong relationship with his father and quiet curiosity about the world around him, Turner is depicted as a grunting, shuffling, boar of a man, yet has a curious capacity to economically articulate beauty. These sorts of contradictions in his character are wonderfully played by Timothy Spall, who inhabits the role with a fearsome physical intelligence. Spall’s Turner is hard to like, at times, but he is easy to believe in as a fully-realised human being. This is not necessarily true of others, unfortunately – so much weight is put into Turner, that even valuable supporting cast members such as his wives, his patrons, and his contemporary artists appear to be drawn a little thin.
Fans of Mike Leigh might wonder how a period film like Mr. Turner fits in with the director’s usual thematic concerns of class and privilege in a constantly shifting British landscape, previously explored in films like Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky. But these are subtly explored in Mr. Turner through questions of artistic patronage, who art is for, and the gap between artist and audience, including in an especially enjoyable scene in which Turner’s wealthy patrons attempt, and fail, to engage him in highfalutin conversations about artistic meaning and purpose.
Mr. Turner is beautifully shot by cinematographer and frequent Leigh collaborator Dick Pope, achieving something similar to Turner himself in imbuing even the most ordinary scenes with a striking grace. Every shot looks like a painting, whether it’s depicting Turner silhouetted against a shoreline, or strapped to a ship’s mast (in one of the more bizarre examples of his curiosity), attending a recital, or crashing to the ground in near-death throes more frequently as the film progresses.
Indeed, there is a powerful sense of decay, despair and ageing that creeps into the film through its revisiting of certain scenes, characters and places, bordering on the gothic (appropriate for Halloween eh?) – Turner’s once-opulent picture gallery, fallen into dusty disrepair by film’s end, or his half-witted maid, whose initial nervous scratching ultimately utterly corrupts her features. Considered in tandem with Turner’s tepid evaluation of earth sciences, photography, and his contemporaries, one could draw some interesting conclusions about the state of art, how the visual arts complement and are complemented by the world around them, and how the perception of these may change over time.
Mr. Turner is first and foremost about its protagonist, Spall’s magnificent performance makes him more than a name from an art history book and, along with Pope and Leigh’s flawless framing of its action, makes this film a worthwhile watch. While the relatively loose plot will not be for everyone, fans of Leigh will surely be blown away.