Mr. Turner (Cert 12)
1 Disc (Distributor: Entertainment One) Running Time: 150 minutes approx.
Mike Leigh is something of a national treasure here in the UK for his hugely prolific canon of quirky, witty, heartbreaking but honest kitchen sink dramas, from the seminal satire of his TV play Abigail’s Party to the emotionally challenging Secrets And Lies. His latest film Mr. Turner sees Leigh leave the gritty underbelly of working class suburbia to travel back in time a second time (since 1999’s Gilbert & Sullivan related Topsy Turvy) to presents us with a visually enchanting bio-pic of the celebrated 19th century painter J.M.W Turner.
Timothy Spall, delivering a career best performance, takes on the role of Turner in this detailing of the last twenty-five years of his life from 1826 to 1851. Our first glimpse of the master painter is in the background working away in a field of tall grass while our attention is on the two Dutch girls walking along a footpath deep in conversation. This tells us immediately that our subject is not one for convention, a trait which is confirmed as the film progresses.
No actual plot is forthcoming here, just a chronological retelling of Turner’s final quarter century in life. Unconcerned with trivial matters like shopping, money management and the usual quotidian concerns, Turner keep himself occupied in his small studio in his London home, leaving the other matters to his elderly father William Senior (Paul Jesson) and loyal housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), a simple psoriatic woman upon whom Turner forces himself when in need of sexual release.
When not upsetting his fellow artists with his sharp tongue and unorthodox approach to his art, Turner is off roaming the countryside or taking boat trips in search of inspiration for next works. It is while in Margate that Turner becomes besotted with landlady Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey) with whom he enters into a relationship, under the pseudonym “Mallard” until he is recognised and outed by Doctor Price (David Horovitch) during an examination.
Unusually for a Mike Leigh film, Mr. Turner takes a while to get into. After a brief introduction to Turner, his home life and a quick glance at his quirks, things meander for a good twenty minutes or so, only to resume the pace with the introduction of Mrs. Booth. The action flits between Turner’s two worlds, both of which represent two different sides of his rather unique personality. In London, Turner is often blunt, brusque and even rude, often limiting his responses to mere grunts, while in Margate, he charming charismatic and appreciative of Mrs. Booth.
This is also reflected in Turner’s interactions with his peers and contemporaries in the art world – jocular and ebullient towards some, hostile and dismissive towards others. In a scene set in the Royal Academy, while Constable (James Fleet) is adding the finishing touches to his latest work Turner appears and adds a red splodge to one of his own works, upsetting Constable who storms off. Turner then returns and shows why he did what he did, to much applause from the onlookers.
Turner was known as the “painter of light” and his painting stands out against the backdrop of dark, literal works from the other masters of his time. This is an ironic epithet in lieu of his often abrasive personality and his ability to find beauty in the darkest of inspirations – a vivid sea based painting is inspired by a dingy little tugboat while the dead body of a plague infected girl has him reaching for his sketch book.
Leigh’s irreverent sense of humour is a welcome presence to lifts the gloom of many a scene while revealing Turner’s idiosyncratic side and that of the period. The awkward and formal interactions between Turner and his illegitimate daughters by Hannah’s aunt (Ruth Sheen) are toe curlingly painful to watch but Turner’s clueless nonchalance towards the situation and the aunt’s barked barbs make for some wrongfully comic moments.
As if mastering the multiple aspects of Turner’s personality wasn’t enough of a challenge for Timothy Spall, he also had to be able to paint like Turner. To achieve this Spall spent over two years learning how to paint in this style. Even if the paintings were started by a professional Spall still had to add to them on screen and he pulls this off convincingly enough to make us believe we are watching the master at work. It’s criminal he wasn’t rewarded beyond Cannes for this role, not just for the performance but the dedication and commitment to the preparation.
For a period piece authenticity and verisimilitude is profoundly essential in making us feel we have gone back in time to the era in question and the production team have done an incredible job in recreating every aspect, big and small, to achieve this. From the paintings to the architecture, to the clothes and even the eloquent, verbose and lyrical language of the people, this is an intricate and impeccably realised replication of the early 19th century.
With a reputation for gritty low budget films, the sheer scale and ambition of this film is a departure for Leigh and it shows in his direction. Previous outings capture the intimacy of the situations and the realism of the subjects; here the emphasis is on wide shots, often crammed full of people or left empty save for the location to let the open space set the scene. What hasn’t changed is how Leigh directs his actors, once again coaxing natural and perceptive performances from this well chosen and exemplary cadre of old collaborators and new faces.
The 130 minute run time is a bit of an investment for the viewer and initially it seems like it will be a chore to sit through, but once things get going, Mr. Turner reveals itself to be a hugely rewarding and insightful film. It is fitting that a painter whose works were considered cinematic is immortalised in a stunning piece of cinema.
English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
English SDH Subtitles
Making Of – Many Colours Of Mr. Turner
Rating – ****
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