The Pitch: How to make a good impression(ist).
The Review: I’ve not got a great relationship with art. While music and I have been comfortable bedfellows over the years, and I even have a passing fondness for photojournalism and other photographic art, true painted art and I largely parted ways after a disastrous art exam at the age of 14 saw me score a pitiful 15%. An exercise to paint two silver taps ended in me creating two amorphous, faintly luminous silver blobs on a piece of paper, which would have happily received the title “Nightmare In Silver” many years before Neil Gaiman’s Doctor Who episode of the same title. I can actually think of a hundred different ways I’d approach that brief now – none of which would involve silver paint – but I’ve not always grasped the connection between the brain of the artist, his eye and what you see on the canvas. What Mike Leigh’s latest film attempts to do, rather successfully, is to bridge that bond between the brain of the artist and the eye of the beholder through examining the life and works of one of Britain’s finest artists, Joseph Mallord William Turner.
Leigh follows his established pattern when working with his actors of rehearsed improvisation around a narrative framework, and the film calls on quite a number of actors from Leigh’s formidable ensemble. At the centre is Timothy Spall, Leigh’s chosen Turner who spent many hours with a paintbrush in hand in meticulous preparation for the role. Often Spall is the comic relief or part of the Greek chorus on the sidelines, but here he’s in nearly every scene and his Turner is shamelessly fascinating (which he needs to be for the film’s hefty two and a half hour running time). Here as he’s portrayed, Turner is no more and no less than an ordinary man with exceptional talents, but is all the more remarkable for it. Spall’s creation spits, grunts and groans his way through the upper echelons of society that his talent have granted him privilege to, but the performance wisely steers well clear of caricature and readily embraces both Turner’s flaws and foibles and captures brilliantly his outpourings of natural genius.
Mike Leigh’s films often rely heavily on structure, deftly weaving together numerous plot strands, but despite the long duration of Mr Turner the film is more episodic, filling out the detail in the life of its title character with his creative process, his high society life and his regular anonymous trips to Margate to seek creative inspiration. Leigh’s thesis seems to be that Turner the artist is defined by his relationship with his surroundings and Turner the man by his relationships with his women, or in some cases the lack thereof. It seems that a guttural snarl, much like a painting, can convey a thousand words, and Spall’s primal growling and swift room departure whenever confronted with his first mistress (Ruth Sheen) and their mutual children tell you all you need to know. He can be perfectly mannered, as with the Margate landlady (Marion Bailey) who he grows ever closer to on his frequent visits, but equally his frustrated encounter in a house of ill repute speaks volumes with the merest of dialogue. The most normal, articulate relationship with any other human is of that with his father (Paul Jesson), but it also inevitably leaves a mark on Turner in very visible ways. As well as its concerns with the past, Mr Turner also looks to the future, the passing of era’s and Turner’s own recognition that his medium could soon be usurped by upstarts such as the coming of photography.
Mr Turner wears its heart on its sleeve and lets out its soul through Turner’s animalistic grunting. but it’s through its vision that it truly soars. Leigh composes images and scenes which evoke some of Turner’s famous paintings and in turn become some of the most striking images of Leigh’s long career, so often previously tethered to the metaphorical kitchen sink. Turner’s style, which might have influenced the impressionists, is best seen in Leigh’s approach to characterisation but he lets the views of Turner’s masterpieces speak for themselves with simple, subtle camerawork. In contrasting Turner’s personal life with backdrops that inspired Turner’s most famous paintings such as The Fighting Temeraire the film truly captures the sense of the artist as seen and felt within the paintings themselves. Leigh’s regular cinematographer Dick Pope does great work in grasping the sense of these images without the need to slavishly imitate Turner’s style in his crisp cinematography, but it’s through Turner’s life and Spall’s magnificent performance that we truly come to understand the inner workings of a great artist’s mind. Art and I might have wisely parted company two and a half decades ago, but Mr Turner’s insights into the mind and process of an artistic genius may inspire many others to pick up their easels and paintboxes again with renewed appreciation for life’s diverse pleasures.
Why see it at the cinema: The artistic highlights of Turner’s career, writ large on the cinema screen in flesh and blood, coupled with Turner’s performance make this a cinematic delight.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate sex and sex references. I’ve long held a grudge against the BBFC for their decision to allow breasts (or in the case of Titanic, breast) to be shown at 12A, long after the time when my 12 year old self would have been able to benefit from / be suitably embarrassed by their appearance. I thought for a brief moment that my twelve year old self would have loved Mr Turner, and he probably would, but not for that reason.
My cinema experience: The last film of a quadruple bill at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, and a sold out cinema which seems to have become the norm during first couple of weeks of Mr Turner’s run – always the best way to see any film so willing to engage the emotions of its audience.
The Score: 9/10