J.M.W. Turner is known as the consummate “painter of light”, a visionary master of the landscape. Mike Leigh, by contrast, can be considered a contemporary master of the portrait, one of whose great skills is the extraction of extraordinary central performances from his actors. He achieves this by eschewing scripts in favour of intense periods of improvisation and rehearsals to develop characters and scenes, a method which often produces character studies of great psychological depth and humanity. Take for example David Thewlis as Johnny in Naked, Imelda Staunton as Vera Drake, Sally Hawkins as Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky and now Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner. To its credit, Mr. Turner is nothing like conventional biopics that contort the complexities of human existence into convenient narratives, staid affairs to be assessed in bland terms of historical accuracy and verisimilitude. While firmly grounded in biographical detail, Mr. Turner isn’t constrained by some impossible pursuit of true representation, instead using poetic license to compose a living, grunting impression of the mortal being behind the immortal works.
The incongruity between the artist and his art forms one of the film’s central themes, established from the outset. The opening shot places us in the Netherlands, tracking a pair of traditionally-clad women conversing in Dutch as they take a sunset stroll down a riverside path. For a moment you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in the wrong film – the subtitle track somehow gone missing – before the camera rests on a portly, top-hatted figure sketching the scene in the distance, the first of several scenes to depict a solitary Turner amid a sublime landscape. Back home in London, Turner barely dignifies the questions of his housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) with a response, save for a grunt or two. He then gropes her breast as she leaves the room, his piglike, curmudgeonly demeanour shattering any illusions borne out of the dignified vision of the artist in nature preceding it.1
As the film develops over the course of the quarter century it deftly covers, so too does Turner’s character, with the gradual discovery of redeeming characteristics such as an insatiable intellectual curiosity, gruff sense of humour and an emotional fragility. He reserves warmth and care for a select few: his father, whose death greatly affects him, and later Mrs. Booth (played by Leigh’s own partner Marion Bailey), with whom he shares an especially tender relationship in his later years. However, his cruelty towards the other women in his life remains his major failing: most saliently towards Hannah, who he exploits sexually and otherwise has little time for,2 and towards his ex-lover Sarah (Ruth Sheen), the mother of his two illegitimate (now adult) children and who clearly bears a strong grievance against him, a neglected family he seems to hold nothing but indifference for. Spall expresses Turner’s awareness of his own shortcomings through an array of small gestures, expressions and guttural sounds that reveal his frustrations; emotions he deals with though total immersion in his work.
Leigh weaves Turner’s work throughout the entire fabric of the film, so that we are witness to his process, product and its varying reception. We observe moments of inspiration, such as in the opening shot, in scenarios recognisable to those familiar with his work as material for later paintings. In a Romantic gesture, Turner has himself tied to the mast of a ship during a snow storm in what will later become “Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth” (1842). He is struck by the marvel of an oncoming steam train; the inspiration for “Rail, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway” (1844). Most striking is perhaps the CGI-rendition of the “Fighting Temeraire”, which Turner observes with a few painter friends as they row down the Thames, bathed in a clearly digitally augmented sunset which seems more Life of Pi-era Ang Lee than Mike Leigh. Focus is placed on the dirty work of painting itself, Turner often seen vigorously applying paint to canvas in his studio, or making performative displays at the Royal Academy such as spitting and blowing brown dust particles on his works or dramatically applying a splodge of red paint onto a delicate marine landscape. Several scenes involve the reception of his work. The famous art critic and Turner advocate John Ruskin is sent up as a coddled imbecile, espousing both his admiration of Turner as well as his earnest opinions on the most favoured climes of the gooseberry. We see the cold reception of his more radical, abstract later works, such as Queen Victoria lamenting his complete abandonment of form while receiving a private viewing, as the dejected Turner listens on, concealed from view. Much of the production design and cinematography also bears Turner’s distinct visual influence, DOP Dick Pope enhancing the presence of light wherever possible.
The effect of Mr. Turner is cumulative, creeping up on you with its astonishing brilliance, wealth of detail and emotional depth, amounting to a quietly spectacular work of a confident master. Leigh’s identification with Turner clearly runs deeper than a simple appreciation of his art or fascination with his character. Both from working-class backgrounds but involved with the upper classes, in the late period of their work and considered to be British national treasures during their lifetimes, significant analogies are there to be drawn between the director and his subject. Mr. Turner can immediately be counted among the finest of Leigh’s films, an original and compelling vision of, as Spall himself describes him, a “funny-looking fat little bloke who happened to be a genius.”3
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