Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson
Mike Leigh once again returns to the realm of historical biopic. This time he cover the life of the celebrated British painter J.M.W. Turner. Mr Turner not only looks at the last 25 years of Turner’s professional life, but also his personal proclivities and secret relationships. It is a sprawling work that talks about the price of fame, the whims of fashion and the transcendence of art.
Mike Leigh manages to bring both painter and paintings to life in this extraordinary film. Magnificently shot and framed, every scene already looks a picture, so when there is a sequence that directly replicates one of Turner’s images, it is not jarring in a deliberately staged way (The Fighting Temeraire being a prime example). Instead it gives the audience a chance to admire the art (of both the painter and the director) without interrupting the flow of the piece. It is a world full of smoke and dust, making the audience conscious of the light, lending a dreamlike quality to images, but also reminding us of the industry that is encroaching on this age.
By contrast it is also a world populated by grotesques and parodies, yet strangely feeling entirely accurate to the period (early 1800s). It is a warts and all approach that is taken somewhat literally, playing in juxtaposition to the artifice of the mannered society through which Turner navigates, be that with his peers or his patrons. Leigh manages this blend of elements with a deft hand, producing a harmonious balance in his exploration of Turner’s life and work. It may lack a solid narrative to draw an audience through, but it covers the major life events of the artist, giving us a feel for his character and work while never feeling lost.
A substantive part of this is Timothy Spall. It is amazing how Spall’s performance, consisting of a hundred variations of grunts, growls and glares produces a fully realised, nuanced and insightful portrayal of the artist. It is mesmerising. His guttural utterances ground to his roots in an age of shifting social mobility and class consciousness, and Spall takes great delight demonstrating playing Turner as cantankerous, brilliant, driven, unapologetic, lecherous and at times desperate for love. He is ably assisted in this by a solid cast, especially by Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey.
Often a more admirable film rather than a likeable one, it is still a carefully constructed work of art, demonstrating the genius of director, artist and main actor alike.