Directed by: Mike Leigh.
Written by: Mike Leigh.
Starring: Timothy Spall (J.M.W. Turner), Paul Jesson (William Turner), Dorothy Atkinson (Hannah Danby), Marion Bailey (Sophia Booth), Martin Savage (Benjamin Robert Haydon), Lesley Manville (Mary Somerville), Joshua McGuire (John Ruskin), Ruth Sheen (Sarah Danby).
Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner does something very unique for an artist’s biopic. It doesn’t start with the famed artist as a child to show his humble beginnings that he will overcome to become great. It doesn’t even show him struggling early in his career before making it. Hell, it doesn’t even show him overcoming any obstacles at all. The movie opens when J.M.W. Turner is already one of England’s most celebrated and famous painters, and follows him to his death years later. It’s an interesting film in that the Turner in this film is in many ways a horrible person – although Leigh doesn’t do anything as simple as judge him. He simply shows us Turner in all his good and bad behavior – how he could be a pig in one sense, who behavior could be so ugly, and yet he could see such beauty in the world around him that he created some of the masterpieces we see in the film.
This is one of the questions we are still asking ourselves, nearly two centuries after Turner lived – and that is about separating the artist from the art. In contemporary terms, what are we to do with the work of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski or Bill Cosby knowing what we know about their behavior. Do we separate the artist and the art they created? Do we only want art from perfect human beings? Again Leigh’s film isn’t that simple either – he makes it impossible for the audience to separate the artist from the art, because the two are in constant contact. Leigh edits together scenes, sometimes wordless ones, in which we watch Turner do something awful in one scene, and then create beauty in the next, and then back again. It may be clichéd to say that humans are capable of both ugliness and beauty – but that is the truth. And Leigh never really underlines or states these themes in Mr. Turner – he simply lets it all play out.
Turner is played in a brilliant turn by Leigh regular Timothy Spall, who after years of toiling as a character actor in movies large and small, is given the lead role of a lifetime here. He grunts his response too many of the questions he is asked – he never talks about his process, or what his paintings mean. When he does talk about painting, he talks about it in such dry detail that people are practically put to sleep. But he does have a process – and we see it, although sometimes it takes a long time for us to see it (as it does when we hear a man tell Turner about his time aboard a slave ship, and then more than an hour later, we see Turner’s painting that captures the same pain we heard in the man’s voice). Turner is crass and vulgar – although he knows how to behave in pleasant company. He uses women – we meet his ex-mistress, who bore him two daughters he barely knows (and doesn’t want to know) – that he cannot stand to be around. He treats his maid (Dorothy Atkinson) with zero respect – barely speaking a word to her, but expecting her to put up with having sex with him whenever he wants. And we learn he was partly responsible (along with his father) for putting his mother in an institution when she got too much to handle. But then, we also see Turner is capable of great tenderness with women – he weeps as he sketches her. He meets a twice widowed woman (Marion Bailey), and the two falls in love while barely speaking a word. He keeps the various parts of his life separate – so much so that people in one don’t even know he got married in the other.
This is, without a doubt, the most visually stunning movie that Leigh has made to date – and one of the most stunning of the year. The cinematography by Dick Pope uses the paintings of Turner as inspiration, and creates some very painterly images throughout. As we do expect from Leigh is that the details are just about perfect – the costumes, the production design, etc. Leigh doesn’t make it all look fancy – they don’t look like sets or costumes, but they seem lived in.
The film, like all of Leigh’s work can be funny (a scene with an art critic is hilarious – and better handled than the critic scenes in Birdman and Big Eyes this year for example, even though the critic here is even more a pompous ass), or sad, or tragic, or happy – but always remains subtle. He writes his films the same way each time – casting his actors, and giving them an outline, and then improvising his way into a screenplay. Here, that lack of structure sometimes allows the movie to meander (sometimes to its benefit, sometimes not) – but the film at two and half hours does feel just a touch too long. But it’s still a pleasure to spend time soaking up this movie – and Spall’s performance, that I hardly cared.