Mr. Turner is one of the better biopics in recent years. It’s cast from the steady hand of English writer-director Mike Leigh, who covers the last 25 years of the life of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), one of the great late-Romantic english painters, and does so in a way that it does not unfold in a predictable checklist of accomplishments, but understated moments that reveal the man’s regrets, fascinations, and stubborn detachment from public opinion and contemporary views of aesthetics. Themes like beauty, decay, life, and death grow organically out of the story- earthy like Turner’s own commanding works – and we feel like a story is naturally unfolding instead of a narrative that’s trying to contrive appreciation for a particular figure.
“Most of my films are condensed dramas,” Mike Leigh explained as he leaned forward in his hotel suite’s master chair during an interview at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. “Topsy-Turvy took place over a year-and-a-half, but here I couldn’t drop the anchor in one place. This is about a man on an epic journey.”
Fortunately, Mr. Turner doesn’t get bogged down in scale or Braveheart-like “epic-ness.” While the film isn’t in short supply of our leading artisan, played by a plump, grumbling Timothy Spall (a Leigh regular since 1990’s Life is Sweet), roaming lush hills, populated seaports, wispy fields, and even the Royal Academy, the film never reduces itself to shallow spectacle.
The imagery, shot by masterful cinematographer Dick Pope, is its own painting and the perfect template for Turner to, in the words of art critic John Ruskin (played here by Joshua McGuire), “measure the moods of Nature.” “The sheer scale of the dumb thing,” what Leigh playfully ascribes to his new film, never gets in the way of letting us absorb the more human qualities.
At 150 minutes, Mr. Turner follows an episodic structure of the man’s life, having every scene serve as its own self-contained experience, and avoiding the biopic convention of using title cards to literally convey the sense of time. Here we feel the years go by, as Turner anchors himself and lets aging wash over him as he persists creating art with a “scintillating intellect.” At one moment, Turner straps himself to a ship’s mast during a storm so he can get the most inspiring view to replicate in his own artwork. It’s the best example of the man’s endurance test in the fight against nature. “He was a man of drive and destiny,” added Spall.
But a great biopic must find and obsess over a central mystery about its subject. A simple paean (or indictment) won’t do. A character – heroic, historical, and otherwise – must embody a special paradox, a dichotomy in personality or ideology that renders them completely, hopelessly human.
Spall observes: “He’s [Turner] a man of contradiction […] He created the sublime with […] an internal mixture of implosive, unresolved emotion which turned out to be a genius with a brush.” That was one of my main fascinations about Leigh/Spall’s portrayal of Turner – he’s a portly fellow with sensitivities, sure, but is piggish with his movements and guttural noises. Yet on the inside is, based on his creative output, a man of beauty, because his paintings are commonly about discovering the ineffable and trapping it with a canvas frame and an oil brush.
What makes Mr. Turner so compelling, even as a slow and tender burn, is, as Leigh suggests, “the tension between this eccentric, flawed, vulnerable, passionate, driven, grubby individual and this amazing, epic, sublime art that he created.”Leigh demonstrates this tension by dramatizing key scenes in dauntingly long takes, where characters wander various environments – arenas of Turner’s imagination – and Leigh gradually reveals different physical objects to enhance the lived-in elements of the space. For example, during a conversation at an art gallery we hear a piano and wonder if it’s just Gary Yershon’s soundtrack. Then, Leigh pulls back and reveals a pianist in the corner of a room. We discover certain sights and sounds exist within the reality of this constructed world.
For Mr. Turner, the world was constantly ready to be imitated and reimagined. Near the film’s conclusion, the radical but indisposed painter struggles to sketch a maiden who’s drowned and swept up on the sandy shore. Turner hastens to capture the poor Sophia-like cadaver – the freshness of death emanating from her – but his own weakness prevents him. It’s a raw moment evoking man’s inherent, mortal limitations – what Leigh’s always done so well – and imbuing them with great sympathy.
Spall concludes, “with Mike, you create this parallel universe- you work in real time, you work and develop them together. It’s a shared experience, but Mike is the maestro.” He certainly is.
Mr. Turner had its Canadian Premiere at TIFF ’14 and will have a limited theatrical release on December 19th, 2014.