Mr Turner

Review by Sophie Monks Kaufman @sopharsogood

Directed by

Mike Leigh

Starring

Dorothy Atkinson Paul Jesson Timothy Spall

Anticipation.

Impressed the baying masses in Cannes.

Enjoyment.

Detailed, beautiful, melancholic, funny, and above all, composed.

In Retrospect.

Leigh has earned this masterpiece through the Turner school of industrious application.

Timothy Spall grunts his way to glory in Mike Leigh’s elegantly composed portrait of JMW Turner.

“Iron” Mike Leigh’s biopic of British Romantic painter, JMW Turner, bursts with such vivid detail that single frames stand alone as art. Watercolour opening credits morph into a Belgian field at dawn. Two worker women stroll by a river, their ordinary clothes and chatter imbued with grace by the orange sky above them. The camera then finds another figure in the distance. He’s a portly silhouette with a downturned lip, a stove-pipe hat and eyes locked on to the landscape he’s sketching.

This opening scene is a mission statement. Background is as important as foreground — a perspective reinforced via the 150 minutes (covering 25 years) we spend in the company of a painter intent on recording nature’s bounty. Leigh pays tribute to Turner in the most fitting of ways, working with regular cinematographer Dick Pope to dramatise his subject’s life against a persistently majestic backdrop of fine period detail. He sent his Turner, Timothy Spall, off for two years of painting lessons. This is a token insight into the extent of Leigh’s planning, research and desire to present the world in a light that might have pleased his subject. As a result, Mr Turner is a formal masterwork that cuts no corners in its rendering of locations from the 1800s, from rural havens to the Margate coastline and the grubby bustle of London’s Marylebone where Turner lived with his retired-barber father, William (Paul Jesson).

A third person lives with the Turner men. She is Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), a loyal maid and equally loyal sex toy. As for so many of Leigh’s characters, she conveys oceans of feeling, but only in the (body) language appropriate to her social position. After taking dirty laundry off a newly-returned Turner and providing him with a drink, she asks if he’d like anything more. The expectant look in her eyes and the way she holds her brown sack-of-a-dress are akin to a shy schoolgirl with a crush on the teacher. Turner has no time for her feelings and uses her as just one more available gob of colour to apply to a canvas of endless indeterminate shades.

Atkinson is heartbreaking as this tragic woman who scuttles rather than walks with eyes full of sunshine when master favours her, and lightning when another woman effortlessly poaches not just her love but her livelihood. That Hannah’s arc loops quietly in the background (with the added indignity of a steadily growing, never mentioned physical affliction that starts with an itch) with only the merest of climaxes is a reflection of the overall tone. People in this world do not expect or enjoy an overabundance of happiness. Those that fare better are the lucky souls who can lose themselves in the minutiae of their labour.

Evaluated in these terms, Turner is a lucky soul. He lives to work: rising in the early hours, travelling for miles and strapping himself to the mast of the ship in order to get the best perspective possible of a coming storm for his painting, ‘Snow Storm — Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth’. Much of the film is concerned with exertions. Yet Spall gasps, grunts and wheezes in human company more frequently than in pursuit of art. His devotion is liberation. People are complicated and want answers or attention or money. Which isn’t to say that Spall and Leigh’s Turner is a misanthrope, far from it. Roaring sobs wrack his body when learning the young age of a prostitute, and he is not averse to bawdy humour. A double entendre involving the word “salty” is hilarious, firstly as an unexpected zinger and secondly, as a 19th century come-on.

With Topsy-Turvy, Leigh’s only other period work to date, the detail, moustaches and speech were all immaculate but, reflecting the title, the film was a purposefully meandering slice of Gilbert and Sullivan’s life bookended by the creative cycle of their ‘new’ musical-comedy, The Mikado. Here, in addition to getting characters and settings to feel utterly authentic, Leigh has tightly bound what feel like a series of stand-alone vignettes via bracingly personal themes. Suffering, artistic transcendence, the pleasures of work and relationships are followed by more suffering, more artistic transcendence, more work and more fleeting relationship pleasures. Death scenes receive a heavy emphasis, making the need to get up early and create art all the more urgent.

Spall’s acting — part eloquent utterances, part non-verbal sounds — serves to forumulate an enigmatic persona. He never steals scenes but makes his presence felt in all walks of life, with monied patrons, verbose peers and poor working folk. Leigh intersperses life shot from the ground, with life shot from the heavens — a low-key domestic chit-chat is displaced by a gorgeous seascape. Soothing vistas are the only respite, for in Mr Turner, there are no grand climaxes or symphonious convergences. Mr Leigh has given us a pitiless picture of life, a reverent picture of work, and a divine picture of art.

Published 31 Oct 2014

Anticipation.

Impressed the baying masses in Cannes.

Enjoyment.

Detailed, beautiful, melancholic, funny, and above all, composed.

In Retrospect.

Leigh has earned this masterpiece through the Turner school of industrious application.

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