Mr. Turner – Reviewed by David Turpin
Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson
Mike Leigh’s twelfth feature film is, perhaps surprisingly, a period biography, dealing with J. M. W. Turner, arguably the most significant landscape painter in history. While Leigh has visited the 19th century before, with 1999’s Gilbert and Sullivan portrait Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Turner is a far weightier proposition. Covering the final quarter century of Turner’s life, and addressing the idea of the sublime and its artistic representation, Mr. Turner has a sweep far beyond the tightly focused backstage drama of Topsy-Turvy. Leading man and regular Leigh collaborator Timothy Spall has never been more fully immersed in a character than he is here, bringing the artist vividly to life in all his contradictions.
Absorbing for its full two-and-a-half-hour duration without ever developing a conventional narrative through-line, the film sometimes feels like a sequence of minutely observed vignettes, patiently observing Turner’s artistic practice, his professional dealings, and his home life with his father (Paul Jesson) and housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson). Acutely sensitive to the splendour and terror of the planet, but frequently uncouth and selfish in his dealings with other people, Turner is a fascinating enigma, even as Spall’s presence gives him near-tactile physicality. While Leigh’s films have always touched on the unknowable nature of life, Mr. Turner is the first to deal directly with how an artist attempts to address this enigma and, as is often the case when one artist makes a work about another, it’s tempting to scan the film for an autobiographical reading.
Leigh remains an acquired taste. As ever, the sheer amount of acting on screen at any one time can be oppressive, with an early three-shot of Spall, Jesson and Atkinson featuring more twitching and fidgeting than many whole films. That said, the period setting and biographical subject are far kinder to the actorly “tics” that have sometimes grated in Leigh’s present-day features. Spall’s battery of gestures – including frequent clenching of the hands and, most noticeably, a guttural grunt that punctuates nearly all his lines – actually deepens the film’s mysterious centre, giving Turner a grubby physicality that renders the otherworldly beauty of his work even more arresting. Elsewhere, as Sophia Booth, the Margate widow who became Turner’s unlikely final mistress, Marion Bailey is very appealing, eventually conveying the depth of her character’s inner life in a single late shot. Leigh’s most frequent collaborator, Lesley Manville, turns up for a charming cameo as the self-taught mathematician Mary Somerville, and Ruth Sheen, fresh from Another Year, brings appropriate outrage to her turn as Sarah Danby, Turner’s spurned first mistress, by whom he had two daughters. Atkinson, however, fares less well in the larger role of the mistreated housekeeper, registering as broad and theatrical – at least until the closing scenes, when Leigh belatedly finds a way into her character’s perspective. As Ruskin, Joshua McGuire – the only member of the large principal cast who has never worked with Leigh before – is an amusing caricature, but a caricature nonetheless.
Most unusually for Leigh, the film leaves a visual impression so indelible that the images linger as much as – if not more than – the performances. Shooting for the first time on digital, Leigh’s regular cinematographer Dick Pope delivers the best work of his career, creating shot after shot that evokes Turner’s mastery of light without ever falling into straightforward quotation from his work. Turner’s last words are said to have been “the sun is God”, and Pope’s cinematography follows suit by giving light itself a near palpable presence, both on the grand scale in which Turner himself operated and in tight close-ups that illuminate every feature of Leigh’s performers. As much as the film’s visuals evoke Turner’s work they also offer a corrective to it, bringing to vivid life the individual human presences that are reduced to mere dots in the painter’s imagery. Attuned to both the sublime and the earthy, this is by far the most beautiful film of Leigh’s career, and it seems unlikely that a more beautiful film will be released in 2014.