Directed by: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville
It's rumoured that Mr Turner, Mike Leigh's biopic of the English painter JMW Turner, is to be the director's final film. If this is the case, Leigh is leaving us on a high, with one of the standout films of his career. It may not be the best movie of Leigh's legacy, but it's certainly his most ambitious undertaking, and Leigh gives his period tale a scope you might not expect from a filmmaker whose name is synonymous with intimate kitchen sink realism.
We first see Turner (Spall) in the Netherlands, alone by the side of a canal, painting a windmill as the light slowly gives in to dusk. We soon learn it's moments like this, shared only between the artist, his materials and his subject, that Turner finds most comforting. He's far from a people person, and like many great artists, there's a touch of the narcissist about Turner. In order to make a living from his paintings, however, he is forced to indulge the whims of upper class society. Turner's uncomfortable absorption into the country manor world of the British elite provides for some hilarious interactions, as his patrons make fools of themselves by attempting to get inside his head and analyse what drives his art. "Is there a difference in how you paint a sunset and a sunrise?" one client asks. "Yes Ma'am," Turner replies, "One goes up and one goes down."
To escape the smothering atmosphere of the London art scene, Turner regularly takes trips to a small coastal town where he finds inspiration for his work in the town's coastal seascapes, and a welcoming bosom in the form of his secret lover, landlady Sophia (Bailey, an actress with a countenance that is the very definition of jolly). Back at his Chelsea home, he exploits his housekeeper, Hannah (Atkinson), sexually, though she appears to possess an unrequited affection for him, despite his actions toward her.
Leigh captures the excitement of the mid 19th century wonderfully, a time when science and the arts were overlapping and being embraced and accepted by the mainstream. There's a fascinating scene in which Lesley Manville appears as the pioneering scientist Mary Somerville, who visits Turner's house to demonstrate the magnetic properties of violet solar rays, making science accessible like Brian Cox in a corset. The auction-hosting galleries of London are portrayed as bustling meat markets, with painters falling over each other as they add finishing touches to their work. It's a graphic illustration of the thin line between art and commerce.
Spall gives the performance of his career, Leigh directs with the flourish of an MGM musical helmer, and cinematographer Dick Pope's compositions beautifully reflect the paintings of the period. At 2.5 hours, a movie about a 19th century painter might sound like homework to many, but Leigh has made a biopic that's one of the most entertaining movies of the year.
By Eric Hillis