Biographical films are often a fraught enterprise, filmmakers choosing their subjects based on their cultural importance only to discover there isn’t much there to play with. The films tend to follow an established formula, meaning that even though each film is about a different person, it feels like you’ve seen it all before. It takes filmmakers of great vision and intelligence to break out of that pattern, and acclaimed British filmmaker Mike Leigh does exactly that with ‘Mr Turner’, his film about the legendary nineteenth century artist.
Focusing on the last quarter of Turner’s life, the film follows J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) as he charts a significant change in both his personal and artistic life. Well-regarded if not mildly dismissed within the art world, Turner begins to explore a more abstract vision with his brush, all the while balancing his relationships with his housemaid Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) and a landlady Sophie Booth (Marion Brady).
Leigh’s approach is to contract a meditation on the man rather than a familiar narrative of his life, so that the focus is understanding his soul rather than a checklist of biographical detail. There’s no flash-forward through the first two thirds of his life, so we are left to construct that narrative from the various details we are offered. Because of this, Leigh’s film is far more masterful that 95 percent of biographical films, and ultimately far more satisfying. You become entranced both by the man himself and the world he exists in, and how he fits (or doesn’t) within it. In particular, the film offers a vivid view of the art world in England in the 1800s, a far more communal, playful and cut-throat world that you would expect.
'MR TURNER' TRAILER
Leigh and his team revel in the rich details their subject has to offer, and Leigh’s improvisational style gives the film an immediacy and a freedom, as if we were taking a snapshot of this world rather than a reconstruction. The visual anchor for Leigh and his cinematographer Dick Pope are Turner’s paintings, not just in reconstructing them cinematically but borrowing colour and texture from them. We see the world as Turner sees it - a symphony of natural colour and movement across wild and unforgiving landscapes. As a result, the cinematography is overwhelming, a breathtaking achievement for a cinema dominated by visual effects and 3D. Pope’s work is on par with the period beauty of Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’ for its detail and realism. It transcends gimmick, the echoes of Turner’s paintings constructing an echo of Turner himself, as wild and tumultuous as the landscapes he paints.
At the centre of this extraordinary film however is the titanic performance from Timothy Spall. It’s been a long time coming, but Turner finally gives Spall the chance to show what he is really capable of, and all the accolades he’s received for his performance are testament to that. Turner isn’t a romantic figure driven by passion and desire, but a cantankerous, lecherous goblin, both the complete opposite of his beautiful works and exactly like them, a force of nature that has crawled out of the mud. Spall commits to the complexities of Turner completely, creating a living, breathing character rather than a ghost raised from the dead. His detail and skill are spectacular to watch. The supporting cast are also superb, especially Dorothy Atkinson as his used and abused housemaid Hannah. Her affection and commitment to her "Billy" are total, even as he misuses and discards her, and in many ways, Atkinson’s performance is the emotional heart of the film. In her final moments, you can hear her heart shattering.
You become entranced both by the man himself and the world he exists in.
For those wanting a concise Wikipedia breakdown of the life of J.M.W. Turner on film, look elsewhere, because Mike Leigh isn’t interested in such things. Facts about the man and his art are secondary to their beating heart, the soul of an artist and how that soul translates through brush and paint into a masterpiece. ‘Mr Turner’ works against all clichés of biographical films to craft something more poignant and emotionally satisfying, as well as one of the most beautiful period films ever made, and easily one of the finest performances of the year. For lovers of great cinema, this is an event of a film.