Prior to Mr. Turner, I’d assumed J.M.W. Turner was some upper-class dork with a silly accent, spending his days flouncing around a field somewhere (probably wearing a stupid old-timey hat). I dutifully trotted around the Turner Collection at Tate Britain and appreciated (rather than enjoyed) his paintings, but to be honest, landscapes aren’t really my cup of tea. I figured Turner was just one of those artists you’re expected to like, an institution rather than something that speaks to the heart.
After watching Mike Leigh’s biopic, however, my thoughts have changed. Turner, as seen through the lens of Mike Leigh and the performance of Timothy Spall, is a weirdly primal, sexually charged pig man who spits on his canvases, responds to questions with bestial grunts and is tangled up in some compulsive quasi-BDSM relationship with his housekeeper. From the moment we first see him silhouetted against the horizon, we’re gravitationally drawn to a man who’s sometimes a miserable old arsehole, sometimes sweet and romantic, but always fascinating to watch.
Mr. Turner covers the last quarter century of the artist’s life. He’s established when we meet him, his landscapes dotting the walls of stately homes up and down the land. Turner’s base is right in the hum and buzz of central London where he lives with his elderly yet rambunctious father (Paul Jesson) and his long suffering housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson).
The film follows a meandering, realistic narrative, free from melodrama and explosions of emotion. We follow Turner through his life from an interested, curious distance. He takes trips to the coast where he tentatively romances a widow (Marion Bailey), visits the Royal Academy to pass judgment on his contemporaries, travels to benefactors on cultural excursions and generally picks his way through the minutia of everyday life.
Leigh’s best tactic in approaching Turner as a man is to show his craftsman’s philosophy, rather than focusing on high-falutin’ mysterious inspiration. The director firmly defines Turner as a working man, and a working class working man at that. Care is taken to show us the processes that support his labour, the preparing of paint and ordering of canvases, his sales technique, the scheduling of trips out of London and the intricate details of living as a professional artist in the 18th century.
If you think that sounds dull, you’re mistaken. Period dramas often feel like they’re representing a Disneyland past dialed to contemporary sensibilities. Leigh’s past feels positively journalistic by comparison – the set designers achieving an almost fractal level of detail within each set. Similar care has gone into casting. There’s a factor known in the industry as ‘period face’; an actor possessing the right kind features for the right moment in history. Every actor in Mr. Turner has an outstanding period face, giving the film a taut sense of ‘history as present.’
Within this the ‘King of the period face’ is undoubtedly Timothy Spall. His Turner’s default expression is that of a sceptical scowl, his lower lip curled upwards as if he’s distinctly unimpressed by the hand life has dealt him. Everything from his shuffling, vaguely simian gait to the self satisfied way he squats in a chair screams character. This is a masterclass in developing a performance, so good that when future generations picture J.M.W. Turner, it’s Spall’s face that they’ll see in their mind’s eye.
Spall has obviously done his homework (and then some), but there’s a palpable personal connection with Mike Leigh himself. After all, both men are involved in the transmission of light to an audience, and both bristle with working class pride at their skills as craftsmen and artists. There’s a late scene where a plutocrat arrives to try to buy all of Turner’s work for some ludicrous amount. Turner turns him down flat, politely explaining that he intends to bequest his work to the public upon his death. It’s a slightly didactic moment, but for those who share socialist sympathies with Leigh, it’s a nice old tug on the political heartstrings.
The film is punctuated with a series of subtly hallucinogenic vistas that emulate Turner’s style. Dick Pope provides breathtaking cinematography here, translating photography into the vaguely impressionistic strokes of Turner’s brush. They allow us to see through his eyes and recognize the beauty, savagery and awesomeness of the landscapes that he made the focal point of his career.
On numerous occasions the film comes back to the primal interaction of light and matter; whether it be in the mind’s eye of the artist, split through a prism, captured in a daguerreotype or digitally encoded onto Leigh’s cameras. Both Leigh and Turner share a sense that light is divine, Leigh subtly arguing that Turner’s final works – blurred, prototypically impressionist images – are the pinnacle of a life’s work trying to capture the sun’s rays. No wonder his final gasped words are “The Sun is God!”
A Mike Leigh biopic about an 18th Century fine artist is perhaps an acquired taste – if you’re a die hard fan of either Leigh or his titular artist, you probably already have tickets to Mr. Turner. If you’re in the fence, perhaps wondering if you really want to spend three hours watching a social realist director explore art philosophy, then bear this in mind; the day after the screening I went back to Tate Britain and this time Turner’s paintings came alive. Any film that can do that is doing a hell of a lot right.