We conclude our coverage of this year’s London Film Festival with Mike Leigh’s long-anticipated biopic of J.M.W. Turner: a languorous, immersive, richly detailed work that surpasses expectations.
The popular perception of Mike Leigh remains that of a supreme anatomist (or, for those less kindly disposed towards the filmmaker, broad-brush caricaturist) of contemporary British experiences: a sharp, sensitive observer of the myriad ways in which modern life can be rubbish (or great). Yet, weigh it up, and it quickly becomes apparent that it’s actually the director’s period work that’s proved most rewarding over the last 15 years.
The peerless Gilbert & Sullivan opus Topsy-Turvy (1999) (a film that never ceases to reveal new treasures no matter how many times it’s viewed), the ‘50s-set abortion-themed drama Vera Drake (2004) and Leigh’s last play at the National Theatre, the Rattigan-esque Grief (2011), have all been among the director’s finest-ever pieces. Moreover, each has far surpassed the two rather minor contemporary films that Leigh has turned out during the same period, >Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) and Another Year (2010), both of which found the film-maker falling back in a sometimes tiresome fashion on all-too-familiar situations, conflicts, character types and tropes.