Mr. Turner, directed by Mike Leigh

Philip Kemp on a cinematic portrait of an artist that does justice to the man and his work

October 30, 2014

Mr. Turner

Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey and Paul Jesson
On general release in the UK from 31 October 2014

Timothy Spall gives an intensely physical performance, jabbing fiercely at his canvases with a brush held like a dagger, smearing them with his thumb, spitting on them

Film is self-evidently a visual medium, and skilled use of the movie camera is often praised as “painterly” – but films about painters are notoriously hard to bring off successfully. Most attempts to do cinematic justice to art and artists have slumped into well-meaning middlebrow kitsch, as typified by John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1952), where José Ferrer hobbles on his knees as Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956) or Carol Reed’s woeful The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), in which Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo dithers over painting the Sistine Chapel, much to the irritation of Rex Harrison’s Pope Julius II.

Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, by contrast, triumphantly takes its place among the most accomplished examples of the genre. For anyone who thinks of Leigh only as the tragicomic, left-leaning chronicler of modern-day working-class life, deploying a heightened-realist style in such films as High Hopes (1988), Life Is Sweet (1990) or Secrets & Lies (1996), it may seem strange to find him tackling the life and art of one of Britain’s greatest painters, J. M. W. Turner. But some 14 years ago he surprised his audiences by directing his first costume drama, Topsy-Turvy, a spirited and affectionate account of the often fractious partnership between W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, which Leigh saw as an opportunity to present a metaphor for the film-making process, “to swing the camera round and do a film about us, us miserable lot who go to hell and back in the cause of entertaining people”.

Linking the two films, Leigh notes of Mr. Turner: “I have again turned the camera round on ourselves, we who try to be artists, with all the struggles our calling demands. But making people laugh, hard as it is, is one thing; moving them to experience the profound, the sublime, the spiritual, the epic beauty and the terrifying drama of what it means to be alive on our planet – well, that’s altogether something else…Turner achieved all of it.” As this suggests, the film is a wholehearted celebration of Turner as a painter, while not shrinking from his often less-than-noble – and at times downright curmudgeonly – conduct as a man.

From its very opening shot, the film lays out its visual palette. We see a sunrise, radiant with that diffused golden light that Turner loved to capture, casting its glow over a low-lying watery landscape. Two women in traditional headdresses approach along the canal-side path, laughing and chatting animatedly in Dutch. The camera pans leftwards to follow them and then, as they pass out of frame, lifts slightly to pick out a short stumpy figure on the opposite dyke, silhouetted against the pale morning sky and sketching busily in his notebook as the film’s title comes up. It’s the first of several occasions when Leigh and his regular cinematographer, Dick Pope, create the feeling that we’re being taken inside one of Turner’s paintings.

The film traces the last 25 years of Turner’s life (he died in 1851 at the age of 76). So we have none of the conventional “early struggles, rise to fame” narrative; when the film starts Turner is already a successful and celebrated artist with rich aristocratic patrons. (Leigh has noted that he never considered a standard whole-life biopic, which would have been “a faintly ludicrous charade. We would have had to find a small fat boy who looks like Timothy Spall and who could paint, for a start.”) When we first meet the artist, he’s comfortably housed, tended by his affectionate and devoted father (Paul Jesson) and his housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), able to afford trips abroad to paint and gain inspiration. He’s a welcome guest at Petworth House where his patron, Lord Egremont, proudly displays several of his paintings, and his work’s championed by the young John Ruskin.

Film review Mr Turner, directed by Mike Leigh and starring Timothy Spall

But at the same time, like many of Leigh’s protagonists, Turner fits awkwardly into society. He makes no attempt to conceal his working-class origins (he was born in the then-slummy district of Covent Garden, the son of a barber), nor to tone down his grumpy demeanour, and his idiosyncratic, defiantly unconventional style of painting – these days often regarded as prefiguring Impressionism – alienates as many people as it impresses. He sees his work lampooned in music halls, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, viewing his Sunrise with Sea Monsters, react with distaste. His fellow Royal Academicians treat him with a mixture of affection and wariness, like an indulged family dog that at any moment might snarl or bite.

In the title role, Timothy Spall, in his fifth film for Leigh, gives an intensely physical performance, jabbing fiercely at his canvases with a brush held like a dagger, smearing them with his thumb, spitting on them or blowing a brown powder (snuff?) over them. Much of his dialogue is non-verbal, a rich and often hilarious repertoire of grunts, snorts, growls, chortles and harrumphs, his lower lip jutted out in an expression of morose distrust. Viewing the first exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelites, their finicky, precise details a world away from his own shimmering techniques, he emits an incredulously contemptuous snort that expresses his view of these young upstarts far more eloquently than any words could do.

For, this being a Mike Leigh film, humour is rarely far absent. The varnishing-day scene at the Royal Academy when Turner audaciously upstages his great rival Constable by adding a single splodge of red to his painting Helvoetsluys is played out as ripe social comedy. So is the scene in the Ruskins’ drawing room where the young John, depicted as a pretentious ass who can’t pronounce his Rs, holds forth about “goosebewwies”. Leigh may here be wreaking Turner’s posthumous revenge on Ruskin who, having started out as one of the artist’s staunchest advocates, later dismissed his The Angel Standing in the Sun as “indicative of mental disease” and suggested that his Bacchus and Ariadne should be “banished from these walls with all kindly haste”.

If so, Turner himself might have approved the hint of malice. Leigh doesn’t scruple to show us the painter’s darker side: his refusal to acknowledge his embittered ex-mistress Sarah (Ruth Sheen) or his two daughters by her, and his unfeeling sexual exploitation of Hannah. In one brutal scene, he shoves her up against the bookcase she’s dusting, roughly takes her from behind, then stumps off without a word of endearment or even a kiss. (This relationship, Leigh admits, is pure invention, but it fits with the artist as portrayed.) But against this we see Turner’s more likeable attributes: his warm, loving relationship with his father and with his Margate landlady, Mrs Booth (played by Leigh’s own partner, Marion Bailey), who becomes his mistress. And at Petworth, happening upon a woman playing the piano, he asks her to play Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (“When I am laid in earth”) and, evidently much moved, sings the vocal part in a touchingly hoarse and off-key voice.

Altogether Leigh has created one of the finest, most rounded portraits of a painter ever seen on screen – much helped by a towering performance from his lead actor, who prepared for the role by spending two years learning to paint. Spall, who deservedly won the Best Actor award at Cannes, inhabits the role with total conviction, conveying the full depth of Turner’s stubborn and single-minded passion. When, with his dying breath, he croaks “The sun is God!” it seems to sum up a life devoted to the study of light in all its awesome sublimity. Mr. Turner finds both actor and director at the top of their game and suggests that their late works, like those of their subject, may well be their finest achievements.

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