Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Mr. Turner (***)

Written and Directed by Mike Leigh


There isn't a single Mike Leigh film which doesn't feel like a passion project of his, and so it's almost surprising to learn that Mr. Turner is the film that he had hoped to make all his life. The film is about the last twenty-five years in the life of the brilliant, eccentric painter J.M.W. Turner. Leigh is such a spirited director, known for the Altman-like looseness to his films, so you wonder how the constraints that come with making a biopic would mesh with his usual freewheeling style. As Turner, Leigh enlisted the help of one of his regular cast of characters, Timothy Spall, a character actor who's unorthodox visage has often left him to play grotesque characters in Hollywood films, but Leigh has always seen him as something more. In Secrets & Lies and All or Nothing, Leigh envisioned Spall as more of an everyman, giving the talented actor some of the best roles of his career. None of those roles match the magnitude of Mr. Turner, though. Like all of Leigh's period pieces, there's an attention to detail that is unrivaled, and a trust placed in the actors that allows the settings to truly come alive. Leigh's process is well-known, and his craftiness has made some of the most beautiful, exciting films of the last quarter-century. Mr. Turner, his true passion project, is a sentimental love letter to a favorite artist, but it's still got all of the director's splendid calling cards.

Spall's performance is unique, filled with grunts and grumbles, and plays Turner as a man so preoccupied with his painting, all human relationships are viewed as how they benefit that occupation. That doesn't mean to say that he does not have fruitful human relationships, it's just that those people have to make the time for his artwork as well. He has an ex-wife, Sarah (Ruth Sheen), and two daughters who must always come to his house to visit him. He simply cannot be bothered to disrupt his work to visit them on his own. He also lives with a maid, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), in which he shares an odd, almost disturbing sexual relationship. He fondles her whenever he seems to see it fit, and her facial expressions seem to suggest that not only is she used to it, but she may actually enjoy it. Turner's most important relationship is with his doting father, William (Paul Jesson), who spends much time tending to Turner's occupational needs, finding the necessary tools and oils that his son requires and even selling the paintings out of their home. Turner's close relationship with his father is so tightly wound into his painting, that William's death early in the film sparks the beginning of a perpetual melancholy that never leaves Turner throughout the film.

Another relationship that Turner has is with Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), a manager of a lodging on a shoreside village where Turner often travels to paint his landscapes. When Sophia becomes a widow for the second time, Turner wastes little time before confessing his own romantic feelings for her. Sophia, a born wife and caretaker, sees a softness to Turner that isn't readily obvious to others, and she's one of the few people who can have a relationship with him outside of his art. Within the art world, Turner is often hobnobbing with the other legendary painters of the time. He shares rabbles with dastardly Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), and takes his own shots at didactic art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire). In one of the film's more thrilling scenes, Turner paces through a gallery as the paintings of most cherished hang along the walls. He makes chit chat and even takes a dob of red paint and smudges his own work with it. When one of his fellow painters sees this as a hostile gesture, the fellow artists can't help but laugh at Turner's actions. Turner's fame and fortune goes a long way throughout his toward gaining the respect of his peers, despite ornery his attitude. After the death of his father, Turner's disposition goes from perturbed to downright shattered. Even his happier moments are disrupted by a deep-seeded depression which always finds a way to creep up sooner or later.

His crass behavior is no more apparent than in a pair of back-to-back scenes: the first involving him visiting a whorehouse to sketch a young prostitute (Kate O'Flynn), where he bursts into hysteric sobs before he can even get anything done; immediately after, there's a scene where he stands behind Hannah near a book-filled armoire before he has his way with her, her face hitting the books inside. It's a startling contradiction: one scene shows crumbling weakness, and the other brute force. Leigh has dealt with pricklier protagonists than this, and he knows how to form these characters through their lived-in habits. Equally, Spall's performance is so mannered, in fact, that he makes it easy to see how all this behavior can not only come from one man, but from one man so beloved by society. While the film certainly agrees Turner is a genius as an artist, Leigh seems to cherish the mortality behind this immortal figure. Like Topsy-Turvy, where Leigh examined the world of Gilbert and Sullivan in the least theatrical way possible, Mr. Turner does not try to draw any comparisons between the dark beauty of Turner's paintings and the grumbling man, himself. Even Leigh's period pieces feel so excitingly real, there's so few moments that feel staged, that feel like a movie. Watching Turner stare at a photographic camera with a tender curiosity which quickly changes to paranoid hatred, it's remarkable how easily Leigh can re-imagine a time when photographs were the breakthrough technology.

Dick Pope's work here as cinematographer is exceptional. As usual, Leigh's camera stays back and allows the characters to inhabit the frame freely and casually, but Pope does find moments of flourish. In a sequence early in the film, Turner gets a visit form Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) who shares her discoveries of the power of violet within a prism. The series of scenes, where Mary creates a magnetic pulse by using the light shining through a prism, shows Leigh at his most formalistically brilliant. Most filmmakers who rely on improvisation are sloppy with their camera, but Leigh and Pope so often find ways to stand out. A small zoom-in involving an elephant in one of Turner's paintings shows what I'm talking about. Mike Leigh is one of my heroes, a populist filmmaker who's focus on working-class England changed the way that I saw that part of the world. His films are usually seen as grim, but that's only because they strike so close to real life. In reality, his movies are quite funny, and Mr. Turner is no exception. Turner is about a wonderfully talented, terribly sad man who changed the world with his artwork. And yet, Leigh doesn't seem to care about Turner's more obvious achievements. As he always does, Leigh strikes down to the marrow of the human, till all he had left was a grunting, piggish man - and somehow, it's the most beautiful version of the story.

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