London Film Festival 2014 Day 8: ‘Mr. Turner’

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.

Happy-Go-Lucky and Another Year look even more like “stop-gap” projects when compared to Leigh’s latest work, Mr. Turner, a captivating, capacious account of the life of J. M. W. Turner that offers another richly, freshly imagined vision of the British past. A film that Leigh has had on the burner since the late ’90s, but that was constantly delayed due to financing issues, Mr. Turner arrives, at last, with a considerable weight of expectation. (Its UK release has even been timed to coincide with a major exhibition of late Turner paintings at Tate Britain.) Happily, this immersive take on one of the greatest and most original of British artists meets those high expectations — and even, in its finest passages, exceeds them.

That said, viewers anticipating a more traditional “development-of-an-artist” biopic conceived in comfily broad narrative patterns won’t necessarily be thrilled by Leigh’s approach in Mr. Turner. Indeed, there were mutterings immediately after the press screening about the two hour, 30 minute film being “beautiful, but boring” and “overlong”. (I cherish, as a counter, the remark of the Italian critic Giovanni Ottone, who loved the movie and told me: “I wanted this film to be even longer!”) Like Topsy-Turvy and Grief (which also drew accusations of tediousness from some quarters) Mr. Turner is certainly languorous in its rhythm, developing through a series of richly textured episodes that build and resonate but not always in obvious, spelling-it-all-out ways.

There’s nothing remotely tricky about the film’s structure: the focus is firmly on a linear account of the last 25 years of Turner’s life, beginning with the painter (by then firmly established on the art scene) on one of his European sketching tours, and then charting his relationships with patrons, with his Pa, with colleagues and fellow artists, and with several women, including a late-life liaison with a Margate widow. As often with Leigh, anything as “showy” as a mere flashback seems unthinkable.

But what’s idiosyncratic is where the film places some of its emphases. For, as in his other period projects, Leigh brings to bear on Mr Turner the distinctive feature of his finest contemporary work: namely, a concentrated focus on the revelation of character through domestic detail and daily doings.

Copious research has been done, clearly, but it’s never flaunted: rather it’s absorbed seamlessly into the deep texture of the film. Stretching out sequences that aren’t, by any strict definition, “necessary” to the advancement of the plot, Leigh fashions a marvellously full, expansive experience for the willing viewer, one that makes other biopics look plain skimpy by comparison. (And calling Mr Turner a biopic seems an absurdly reductive designation in itself.)

The film’s approach is painterly, of course; the opening shot – reassuring in its elegance and beauty — is just one of many exquisite images that Dick Pope’s superb cinematography offers. It’s also highly theatrical, with plentiful juicy, Dickensian dialogue (affectionately written, staying just the right side of parody, and delivered with relish by performers of consummate skill) making the film as much of a feast for the ears as for the eyes.

Mostly, though, in its refrains, its lovely rests and pauses, and its scrupulous attention to rhythm, Mr Turner feels like music to me. There are, in fact, several revealing and beautifully sustained musical sequences, from Turner’s off-key croak through Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament” to a late scene that presents the artist observing a music hall parody of his work. Some sections have a vaguely thematic structure, with a cluster of scenes evoking Turner’s sexual life, and another set showing his fall from critical favour. In this way, I’d propose thinking about Mr. Turner less as a conventional biopic and more as a kind of symphony with Leigh, its master composer/conductor, at the helm.

Leigh has chastised other films about creative artists for neglecting the work-life of their subjects (“You may watch a film like Iris and understand that Iris Murdoch was a genius and a troubled soul but you don’t actually experience what she wrote,” he told Amy Raphael) and he ensures that Mr Turner doesn’t fall into that trap. We frequently see Turner at work but, at the same time, there’s no pontificating on art theory or the sublime (well there is, actually, but it’s delivered by a critic, and is the subject of considerable mockery).

Some may complain that Turner’s move into greater abstraction in his late work isn’t really explored in sufficient depth. But at some level the film seems to be suggesting that such developments in an artist’s technique can’t be easily accounted for or explained, and might instead be part of what Leigh has Turner term at one point “the majesty of mystery”.

What the film is unfailingly good at, though, is illuminating the complexity of Turner’s personality and the discrepancies between his private and public selves. This is, after all, a guy given to aliases: he’s “Mr. Mallard” when he lodges in Margate, and “Mr. Booth” when living in unwedded bliss with his lovely landlady in a house on Chelsea Embankment. Avuncular with most of his RA cronies – though not Constable (James Fleet, in an arch cameo) – and dismissive of the lovelorn housekeeper whom he exploits, Leigh’s Turner is, to put it mildly, a man of contradictions, and it’s no surprise that the film doesn’t balk at showing his selfish and often damaging acts.

Part of me feels that the casting of Timothy Spall in the role is somewhat problematic: he’s an actor with such a strong physical presence and so many associations with Leigh that he never disappears into the part entirely. But there’s no denying that Spall delivers an entirely committed turn here, one that’s full of striking surface details (that grunting, that spitting), subtler grace notes, and sometimes startling emotional outbursts.

The film gets at the characteristics of a major artist, then: the drive, the tensions, the obsessiveness. But, from that great opening scene onwards, it also makes sure that there’s a sense of life going on around Turner all the time. Indeed, at times it feels like Leigh has filled Mr. Turner with every actor that he’s ever worked with over the past 40 years, so much so that I actually found myself moved to tears as the opening credits rolled and so many familiar names flashed up. (It’s especially touching to see Sam Kelly’s name in the list, the actor having died just a few months ago.)

Some of the featured performers blend so completely into the movie that you scarcely notice them (and was I hallucinating or was that Imelda Staunton in a cheeky long-shot studio sequence?); others get indelible, vivid set-pieces. But each actor, no matter how brief or lengthy their screen time, contributes to the texture of the whole.

There’s Paul Jesson, gruff of voice and absolutely adorable as Turner’s devoted Daddy; Ruth Sheen, supremely disgruntled as Turner’s ex-lover, letting rip with righteous anger in a pair of memorable scenes; Lesley Manville as a self-taught Scottish scientist talking with Turner about light and landscape, and demonstrating with wonder the workings of a prism; Dorothy Atkinson, channelling Ms. Manville’s shuffling gait from Leigh’s Grown Ups but coming up with a wrenching moment that’s all her own at the “climax” of a distressing sex scene; Marion Bailey, astute and genial as Mrs. Booth; David Horovitch as a shrewd medic; Martin Savage, riveting as the volatile, debt-ridden painter Benjamin Haydon; and Leo Bill, vibrant as a Philadelphia photographer charged with taking Turner’s picture. It’s a cast to die for, and Leigh’s loving, intelligent employment of the actors (and the heights that he inspires and empowers them to reach) is one of the great pleasures that Mr. Turner offers.

Notwithstanding its overall brilliance, the film has some flaws, moments in which one feels the judgement of the filmmaker bearing down on the material too harshly. The portrait of John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) as a pompous, lisping, spoilt-brat is questionable, while a brief, snide scene of Turner snorting with derision at Pre-Raphaelite paintings might benefit from a bit more context. A scene in which we learn that Turner is bequeathing his paintings to the nation (“gratis”) has a slightly sanctimonious tone, and great as it is to see Sinéad Matthews on screen, the sequence in which she’s drafted in as Queen Victoria to pronounce her disdain for Turner’s works (“This one is vile!”) feels a bit forced, too. Nor do all of the final scenes have the total assurance of the film’s perfect first half.

Still, any such complaints must be placed within the context of the overall excellence of the movie. Radiant and likely to be as richly re-watchable as Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Turner is another magnificent achievement for Leigh and his collaborators: a carefully honed, beautifully acted, subtly subversive work that’s sublime, indeed.