No stranger to period dramas, British cinema could hardly have seen Mr. Turner coming. One of the United Kingdom’s most celebrated artists comes to grunting, gruff life thanks to the wonders and determination of another great artist in the shape of Mr. Mike Leigh. But this is no Sunday evening viewing with corsets and cut-glass English accents. Instead it’s a deep, textured and vibrant portrait of a man at odds with the world he occupies yet paving a way that many would revere and follow in.
There is little here in the way of narrative but following Joseph Mallord William Turner (Timothy Spall) is a journey whose destination is all encompassing. At over two hours long it may seem a daunting task, akin to watching the cinematic paint dry, but Leigh weaves Turner’s story in such a way as to formulate a fascinating and intricate insight into the man.
From the moment we meet Turner, Leigh toys with our preconceptions. At first he sketches him as boisterous, belligerent and a debauched man. Happily groping his housekeeper before Leigh cuts from a pig’s head being prepared for the pot with Turner being shaved. But, this being a Mike Leigh film, these early scenes only tell half the story. By the half way point we’ve witnessed Turner venture to a brothel not to satisfy his sexual urges but instead to grieve the death of a loved one by painting a prostitute in the prime of her life.
Because Mr. Turner is not a period drama that simply transports you to the time and place but, as if Leigh possesses a Mary Poppins ability, allows you to leap into the man’s paintings, rummage around within them and uncover a truth, and brutal honesty behind the brushstrokes.
Aided in his task is the exquisite execution of Dick Pope’s sumptuous cinematography. His ability to capture vistas and landscapes that would make Turner proud combined with a more intimate level of depth in character driven scenes is staggering. But their true majesty comes to life in taking Turner’s artistic style and sculpting it into film, the kind of magic that at first Turner would have certainly balked at before delighting in at the realisation of his work brought breathlessly to life. In one wonderfully edited together moment we see Turner flicking paint at a canvas only for it to cut to what is assumed to be the work in question for Pope to have instead captured yet another horizon for Turner to occupy.
Throughout Mr. Turner it is near impossible not to feel Mike Leigh’s presence. It is in many ways Leigh exorcising his own theories on art through the work of Turner. Both Leigh and Turner do things their own way, refusing to conform but always mixing in the right circles with a means to an end mentality. There is a bullish charm to Mr. Turner as there often is to Leigh, men at odds with the world but able to see a truth in it that illuminates others.
But while Leigh is expressing himself and Pope dazzling us it is Timothy Spall who captures the heart, often in spite of Turner’s obvious shortfalls. His performance is bold, big and satisfying as more than a character but as a man you can envisage meeting. Spall expresses more through his bulldog chewing a wasp pout and a series of grunts than any amount of dialogue could ever capture. The genius behind it is that even when Turner is behaving deplorably Spall finds ways of instilling a sense of humour and naughty schoolboy in him that makes you adore him.
A work of immaculate and staggering detail and affection, it is as if Mr. Turner has risen from his work to occupy the heart.