Arts Review, Movies
Mike Leigh, director and writer
Starring; Timothy Spall (J.M.W. Turner), Paul Jesson (William Turner), Dorothy Atkinson (Hannah Danby), Marion Bailey (Sophia Booth), Ruth Sheen (Sarah Danby), Karl Johnson (Mr. Booth), Lesley Manville (Mary Somerville), Martin Savage (Benjamin Haydon)
The life of J.M.W. Turner, the brilliant mid-19th century British Romantic painter, may not have been overly dramatic but that hasn’t stopped Mike Leigh from creating a fascinating portrait of the man and his artistry. It’s wonderfully ironic that Leigh, arguably England’s finest contemporary filmmaker and a noted realist, should tackle Turner but the resulting artistic marriage is astonishingly successful. Not intimidated by Turner or his style, Leigh has crafted a masterpiece that quietly and elegantly shows how the painter lived his life and created his works.
Leigh’s Mr. Turner stars Timothy Spall as the great painter, in what will probably be the role of a lifetime. He’s already won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his portrayal and Spall will surely get an Oscar nomination as well for his visceral, physical portrayal of Turner. Leigh and Spall have recreated the life of a bohemian, albeit a British one. The joie de vivre of France, the romantic melancholy of Spain and the questing soulful style of Germany in the 19th century have been captured over and over again in operas, films and books. In Mr. Turner, we witness what happened when an Englishman during that time played out an artistic existence.
The tale that Leigh creates is almost painfully lacking in the high- pitched joys and sorrows of continental Europe. Take romance: Turner has three lovers over the course of the film but none produce startling operatic emotions. The first, Sarah Danby, gave him two daughters, whom Turner never publically acknowledged; their encounters in the film are presented like the squabbles of long-divorced couples. His second lover, Hannah Danby, a cousin of his first, is his maid; she loves him with a silent hopeless passion and receives only cold passionless sex in return. The third, Sophia Booth, is a likeable widow, who accepts him unconditionally; their relationship, which lasted until Turner’s demise, has a cool, friendly air to it: they feel more like boon companions than lovers.
Turner spends most of his life painting and, indeed, his output was prodigious: he produced over 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolours, and 30,000 paper works. His gorgeous landscapes prefigure the Impressionists and the Abstract Expressionists in their use of colour and abandonment of a purely realistic rendering of subjects. Leigh’s cinematographer Dick Pope won the Vulcan Award for his exquisite work in creating a look to the film that captured Turner’s style.
Paced slowly in a manner that replicates the sensibility of a time far in the past, Mr. Turner is a film that demands attention from its viewers. Spall’s interpretation of the painter is long on silences and deep grunts and short on revealing dialogue or persuasive gestures. But the hard work is worth it. Mr. Turner is a film that will still be viewed in 50 years and remain a classic of art cinema.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical 96.3 FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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