Mike Leigh’s biopic Mr Turner is something of a gorgeous gargoyle. Much like Timothy Spall’s portrayal, the film dances between the binaries of a Dickensian period piece: sure there’s the sense of class and quaint Britishness we love in these types of films, but there’s also this breath of fresh air when all the warts of Turner and his time are exposed to see. I’ve seen similar British biographical films before, which, while enjoyable for the most part, all share a sense of idealising their figures. You can’t help but see them as a bit too picturesque to be all true. Leigh may also paint Turner’s life as beautifully as the artist’s own landscapes, but he isn’t afraid to show the blemishes in the portrait.
Of course it is Spall himself that is the masterstroke of the painting. Known by most moviegoers as Peter Pettigrew of Harry Potter fame, Timothy Spall has spent the last few years learning to paint solely to set his teeth into this role; and his dedication shows. Turner lurches along the screen, flicking his umbrella back and forth, scowling away – an immediate eccentric in reserved old London. He’s a rogue to women, an outcast to the gentry, and a threat to his fellow artists, but everyone that encounters Turner, us included, can’t help but be drawn to the vile charisma Spall gives him. No matter how outrageous or sometimes awful Turner may be though, we see glimpses of the wounded yet wondrous soul underneath. There’s a pitiful scene wherein Spall sketches a prostitute, only for his grumbles to break down into lonely sobs. It’s a fantastic performance by Spall, one that I’m confident will give him a certain British bronze-faced trophy in early 2015.
It’s always a pleasure to watch supporting actors working together to make an ensemble as intriguing as their lead. Praise must be given especially to the portrayals of Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) and Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) who compliment the brutality or intimacy that Turner inflicts. Even so, not all actors can balance on the tightrope of playing these larger-than-life figures, and some dabble more in caricature than character.
The narrative of the film is also a risky venture. Leigh does not so much tell a story as he does follow Turner repeating old mistakes and returning to familiar retreats. Unlike most films, there is no final goal for our hero nor does he learn any lessons. For the first hour of the film, we still don’t get the clear picture of what’s to happen – it seems more like several selected days in the average life of Turner that just happen to have the occasional iconic masterpiece in the background. It’s unconventional for the biopic genre, yet the script (made in the usual Leighan fashion of workshops and improvisations) brings out the domestic splendour of the piece. It seems Leigh almost revels in the mundane more so than the myth of Turner.
Dick Pope’s Cinematography on the other hand is in itself something of a Turner work – it’s as if the entire film is in the POV of this “painter of light”. The highlights of this are the glaring cliffs of Dover and, of course, the cinefied Fighting Temaraire tugged along the Thames. Christine Blundell also does her own fine subtle strokes in make-up when Turner becomes an elderly man before we know it.
There are many great aspects of Turner in general, but there is a sole reason it stands out to me: it’s not big. Among the countless biopics of presidents, musicians and artists you get, it seems directors nowadays tend to be reluctant in telling a life and more so in telling some sweeping Hollywood story. Leigh acknowledges the legend, but never strays from capturing Turner’s life, as he ends the film in that same lonesome optimism that Turner himself is painted with.
Directed by Mike Leigh
Written by Mike Leigh
Starring; Timothy Spall, Marion Bailey, Dorothy Atkinson
Run Time: 150 mins