Timothy Spall is superb in Mike Leigh’s outstanding portrait of Mr Turner
Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Timothy Spall (JMW Turner), Dorothy Atkinson (Hannah Danby), Marion Bailey (Sophia Booth), Paul Jesson (William Turner Snr), Lesley Manville (Mary Somerville), Martin Savage (Benjamin Robert Haydon), Ruth Sheen (Sarah Danby), David Horovitch (Dr Price), Karl Johnson (Mr Booth), Joshua McGuire (John Ruskin), Mark Stanley (Clarkson Stanfield), Patrick Godfrey (Lord Egremont), Niall Buggy (John Carew), James Fleet (John Constable)
“This guy was a revolutionary…he was also timeless”. That’s Mike Leigh’s perspective on JMW Turner – and looking at his late work, as this film does, how can you argue? Turner’s striking use of colour, his work increasingly reflecting moods rather than cold photographic reality, was a forerunner of Impressionism. Often scorned at the time, they now stand as a body of work almost unequalled among British masters. Leigh’s film is a pictorially beautiful, but also sensitive (if meandering) coverage of Turner’s last 25 years, which (like his Topsy-Turvy) is a fascinating celebration of creativity.
To play the artist, Leigh turned to one of his most trusted regulars, Timothy Spall. Spall spent two years learning to paint – a Day-Lewis like effort that reaps dividends as the camera catches his natural, skilfully mastery of both brush and pencil. In a career-best performance, Spall captures Turner in all his scruffy energy. Spall’s Turner is an ambling, gruff eccentric who communicates frequently through grunts (Spall finds multiple variations on a series of guttural cries, from emotional collapse to satisfaction), creating a portrait of an artist who is as deeply intellectually curious as a he is curiously reserved amongst people (for all his frequent gruff bonhomie).
It’s easy to see the grunting Turner as a curmudgeon. But he is in fact far from it. This is a man of deep personal feeling – his uncontrolled sobbing on the death of his father speaks to that – who has warm and personable feelings with his fellow artists. He engages naturally – and with genuine interest – with all he speaks to here, from lords to workers. Like all great artists, he is observing, curious and wants to discover all he can about people and their world.
Again, much like Topsy-Turvy, Mr Turner is a celebration of the power of creativity. With its beautiful imagery and lingering on the environment around Turner, we get a powerful sense of the inspiration he drew from nature. It also shows painting perhaps as it never has been shown before on screen. Turner paints with an aggression that suggests the ideas are tearing themselves out of him. The canvasses are struck, pounded and wrestled into shape. Paint and spit are mixed together, rags and brushes thrown aside. The painting is fast, messy and all-consuming, hands dripping with watery paint. It’s a sense of the artist captured by the muse.
It’s made clear that we are seeing a man who never lets a moment of inspiration pass. Who wants to capture, in his canvasses, the glory and wonder he sees in light dancing across the sky. None of this is clumsily presented or cliched: instead Leigh communicates an intimate understanding of the curiosity and ambition of the artist. The film also doesn’t back away from how revolutionary art like this is – from Queen Victoria to Music Hall comics, Turner is increasingly reviled as a half-blind, mad artist who can now longer paint. Leigh also pokes playful fun at the pretension of critics – principally John Ruskin, here presented as a pompous pillock explaining painting to painters.
It also has a brilliant eye for the performance of art. Turner is clearly a showman – and it’s hard not to think that Leigh appreciates his theatricality. The film brilliantly reconstructs a famous moment at the Royal Academy where Turner recognised his own painting (Helvoetsluys) paled in its colours next to Constable’s The Opening of Waterloo Bridge. Applying a seemingly random splash of red to his painting and then walking away – while onlookers stare aghast at the ruined painting – Turner then returns and crafts (with a rag and his nail) the blob of paint into a small, eye-catching buoy. Its details like that which make the artist. That’s inspiration, and the film is crammed with moments like this.
Taking as its effective starting point the death of Turner’s beloved father (a sparkling Paul Jesson), Leigh’s film takes an observatory, non-judgemental, episodic approach to following Turner’s life. His relationship with fellow artists – from bonhomie with pals like John Carew and Clarkson Stanfield, to guarded distance with his rival Constable, the only man he feels can match him – are contrasted with Turner’s complicated private life.
In private, Leigh presents Turner as a man partly selfish, partly unwilling to confront responsibility – a damaged relationship with his mother having left him retreating from intimacy. A man who, still in his 50s, relies on his father (who he introduces to everyone as “Daddy”) to look after him (from planning his meals to mixing his paint). Turner has disowned his teenage daughters by his mistress Sarah Danby (a furiously good Ruth Sheen).
Turner’s relationship with two women become the pivot of the film. Dorothy Atkinson gives an extraordinary performance, part shuffling curiosity, part portrait of quiet long-suffering devotion. The film supposes an occasional sexual affair between this faithful housekeeper and Turner, which for Turner is clearly little more than an opportunity for release. For Hannah Danby, it’s something considerably more – and Leigh gives the final shot of the movie to her grief and loneliness after Turner’s death.
Turner finds some peace in an unofficial marriage he forms with landlady Sophia Booth (a wonderfully humane performance from Marian Bailey), a relationship he kept completely secret, setting up a home in Chelsea. It’s a relationship set-up and run on Turner’s own terms, but for a man who was a public figure (in every sense), the film suggests that this taste of the ordinary gave him a sense of safety he hadn’t felt since the loss of his father.
Any film about Turner almost has a moral obligation to be shot beautifully. From the opening minutes you’ll know you are in safe hands with Leigh’s regular camera-man Dick Pope. This is an astonishingly beautiful film, which takes Turner’s mastery of light as its inspiration for a series of strikingly gorgeous images. There is a reconstruction of the inspiration for The Fighting Temeraire which wouldn’t look amiss on your wall. The inspiration of Rain, Steam and Speed is extraordinary. At every moment the use of light and vibrant yellows echoes Turner’s dying words “The Sun is God”. One transition to Turner sketching in the Lake District captures a rocky outcrop so wonderfully that for a second I thought I was looking at a painting.
Mr Turner can be criticised as a collection of scenes – or sketches – that come together to form a film. There is no real plot, thematic or otherwise, in the film. Instead, it is designed to give us an impression of the artist, and follows the same sort of episodic, sometimes random, pattern than life itself follows. But in its intimate understanding of both creativity and the complexity of humanity, it becomes a wonderfully involving and inspiring film, beautifully shot and wonderfully directed by Leigh with a towering performance by Spall.