Guest written by Dylan Edwards
I like some of Mike Leigh’s films a lot, and used to love him; he used to have things to say, and semi-interesting methods with which to say them. Didn’t he? The older I get – and, though I hate to say it, perhaps the older he gets, too – the more I begin to see him as perhaps the single least vital or urgent filmmaker of all of today’s ‘major’ world-stage players; a thinking-man’s cinema for the thinking-man totally uninterested in cinema itself, more in something familiar and unchallenging masquerading as cerebral and complex, two things which Mr Turner is emphatically not. Mr Turner is a profoundly superficial and simplistic film even judged by the biopic conventions and artless structure it rigidly prescribes to.
Why do we accept this? Why does the critical community, appearing increasingly unthinking and robotic and homogenised with every passing week-long critical ‘phenomenon’, continue to reward such unchallenging, complacent, unimaginative fluff? The UK film industry’s well-documented incestuousness is too easy an explanation. Leigh is magnificent with words, of course, and there are stretches of dialogue in Mr Turner that gallop impressively, although the historically questionable stiffness of the language employed restricts Leigh’s script from soaring before it ever gets off the ground. There is much beauty to be found in many of Dick Pope‘s images (and the kinda-recreation of some of Turner’s most recognisable works is impressive, I guess, if you’re really in to that kind of thing), but to say Mr Turner’s cinematography has a character or any kind of specific individual flair of its own seems a huge stretch. The acting is mostly fantastic, especially Marion Bailey, my long-time personal favourite of Leigh’s stock crew, delivering a characterisation you might at first suspect of becoming gratingly over-egged in that classic Mike Leigh fashion but which ends up exponentially more human than everything surrounding her.
Most critics have noted the portrayal of Turner here’s obvious assonance with Leigh’s own persona and creative drive. Which, if we accept, is…deeply odd, if you think about it? Mr Turner is as cloyingly heroific a biopic as I remember seeing even given that genre’s rich and textured history of glorifying, masturbatory pap. Although affectingly played by Timothy Spall, the Turner character is never more than a cipher, an object of near-meaningless interest as familiar when the film finishes as when it began. And Leigh details Turner’s selfishness and narcissism and unthinkingness pornographically, his camera in love with him throughout, asking the viewer to laugh and coo at his loveable, difficult ways. The difficult-male-artist trope is, of course, the favourite topic of the difficult male artist. When treated artistically or provocatively or interestingly, this can be excused; Leigh does literally nothing with it. With a genre as ubiquitously dominant as the difficult-male-artist film, and with a film this highly-esteemed, this isn’t just absurdly problematic but only serves to highlight the dullness of the film, and its total lack of imagination.
Mr Turner has managed to attain some of the most unanimous broadsheet praise of Leigh’s career, seemingly by virtue of being just amusing enough and just well-researched enough and of just enough inherent real-life interest to satisfy the expectations attached to its pedigree, not to mention that old chestnut, the well-written-well-acted-well-directed masterwork. The five-star reviews for this film (of which there are, as every tube-station wall has been telling me for at least five weeks, a shocking amount) all read almost like they could have been pre-written upon the film’s announcement, which is to say that they’re exactly as insightful on Leigh’s Turner as Leigh is on Turner.
You don’t come to a Mike Leigh film for artful structuring, but Mr Turner is a career-low even in this respect. It’s the most convoluted kind of biopic, the kind that plods clumsily and briskly through an extended period in a famous man’s life from one capital-I important plot point to vaguely recognisable historical anecdote with little regard for psychology or questioning. I sat there, maybe smiling at the gentle easy-access charm of the moment, but I remained confused, waiting, for Leigh to show me something, to do anything with this project he and many others clearly dedicated much meticulous work into, seemingly at the expense of any artistic exploration of his own.
I shouldn’t be surprised, of course, that the most cloyingly, self-pleasingly English film to come out this year (or any recent year) has attracted some of the London press’ most flagrant hyperbole during that time span. It’s Autumn 2014, and to disengaged middle-class audiences, English self-flagellation is what sells; the more unassumingly pompous and rooted in (a certain version of) reality, the better. Even if we divorce the film from the moment in cinema/politics/culture into which it’s being unleashed, the film’s relentless cosiness and the sheer extent of the praise renders the (by any measure) over-dramatic adoration enormously uncomfortable given the present rUK climate. The many (many, many) inconsequential onlooker characters in Mr Turner tut and caricature in a manner that would (and does) seem parodic in a film with less prestigious pretences. But they’re somehow seen as acceptable, charming, in the Mike Leigh universe; if this inhumanity gets more extreme, the Mike Leigh universe will resemble a fully-blown sci-fi time-continuum by the time the great man is a hundred.