Mike Leigh’s ‘not technically a biopic’ of the life of William Turner is the work of a true master and, like the work of Turner himself, the film Mr Turner finds strength in its immensity – a film just as well made but shorter and spanning fewer years wouldn’t be anywhere near as good.
At the beginning of the last twenty-five years of his life, when Impressionism can be seen in his increasingly abstract work, JMW Turner (Timothy Spall) and his father/namesake (Paul Jesson) make a living selling art in London. Meanwhile Turner shares an odd romance with his housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson).
Last Saturday the Showroom in Sheffield rescreened the Coen brother’s 1998 film The Big Lebowski, making me wonder whether or not Mike Leigh also enjoyed the work of Raymond Chandler and his arbitrary plots. Anyone who enjoys cinema at all must appreciate Leigh’s masterpiece but if there is one criticism of Mr. Turner, it is its lack of any plot twist or fable, which might leave some less enthusiastic viewers listless one hour in. As said above, the Mr. Turner benefits massively from the great effort that went into its design: the search for authentic looking location that Leigh talked of in last month’s Sight & Sound, the attention to the characters and changes in the art world and of course the numerous photographs and landscapes Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope must have gone through. (Not forgetting Timothy Spall’s learning how to paint). Leigh shows his experience through his mastery of such an amount of material. Some of his attempts to montage Turner’s paintings to the landscape which inspired it don’t quite make enough of an impact on film but he keeps the audience inspired with the lively act of painting, one particularly brilliant scene is where Turner adjusts his work with spit and fingernails while hot-tempered artists cheer and whistle around him. Leigh also keeps the film emotional by using close-ups that allow actors to act and rather than using a soppy soundtrack – Gary Yersho’s score is striking and simple.
Ultimately, creating Turner lies to Timothy Spall, who adopts a full range of mannerisms; in a performance every young actor should watch he displays the very physical side of naturalism. Spall is given such a lot to act against as well, Leigh peppers his film with sideshows of bickering couples, pretentious toffs and other members of the Royal Academy of Art. We learn what Turner is really about through his reactions to others – one of these is Mrs Booth, whom Marion Bailey plays superbly.
We spend so much time with Spall that we begin to understand every action of his character, by the end, one certainly doesn’t feel as critical towards him as Salieri in Amadeus or Joe Otten in Prick Up Your Ears. Apart from the fact one can be fairly sure he gave Ms Danby syphilis you’ll very much like the man – I suppose this is testimony to Leigh’s creation of an age where the latter seems usual and to Spall’s ability to have us understand and empathise with him.
Actually to create such empathy for a the subject of a ‘biopic’ without using any of their childhood or past is quite a feat – it can be credited to years of research and the strongest of working relationships relationship between director and actor.\