Is there a wrong way to approach reviewing a movie? Because I find that the most effective way for me to write about Mr. Turner, director Mike Leigh’s portrait of the last 25 years in the life of Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner, is to think about the concept and consequences of an artist making a movie about another artist. This is all to say that after watching Mr. Turner, I found myself endlessly wondering why Leigh decided to make a movie about this particular artist, and how the portrayal of Turner relates to the way Leigh sees himself and the world around it. It might be too meta-textual a way to engage with the film, but it is the one I’m most interested in.
Leigh, who is most famous for his untraditional filming process, which includes long improvisational rehearsal periods during which the director and his actors come up with the structure for the film, is most often associated to observational stories about the British working class. This is curious because some of his most successful (and best) movies have been his few period pieces. And of these period pieces, Mr. Turner is the second that deals with renown artists of Britain’s past.
The first of these movies was ‘Topsy-Turvy’, which I still think is Leigh’s finest work, and which focuses on the relationship of Victorian composing duo Gilbert and Sullivan, as they go through the process of writing ‘The Mikado’, one of their most famous pieces. But while ‘Topsy-Turvy’ focused on the nature of collaboration, and human interaction that accompanies creation, Mr. Turner, which deals with the solitary art of painting, is mostly interested in digging into the character’s personality. In this way, ‘Topsy-Turvy’ was based on historical facts, but Mr. Turner is Leigh’s first true biographical movie.
Which is not to say that this is Leigh’s first portrait. His career is, after all, almost exclusively made out of character studies. Be it the despicable man at the center of ‘Naked’, the hopelessly sunny protagonist of ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, or the lovely but conflicted ‘Vera Drake’, Leigh has always seemed fascinated with the idea of seeing the world through another person’s eyes. A metaphor that is most appropriate (and almost too puny) when talking about a movie about a painter. The fact that we are supposed to watch this movie from Turner’s point-of-view is made text with the film’s opening frame, which presents us with the Dutch countryside, as the sunset saturates the sky with a thick, misty, yellow hue that can almost be touched.
The man in charge of the cinematography is Leigh’s longtime collaborator Dick Pope, who doesn’t really make the movie look like one of Turner’s paintings as much as he makes it look like a believable representation of the visions of nature that must have inspired him. Pope is only one of the people responsible for making Mr. Turner look as beautiful as it does, as he frames and lights the detailed sets and costumes (the latter by costume designer extraordinaire Jacqueline Durran) in a manner that is best described as thoughtful.
If you think all this praise is making the movie sound like your typical good-looking 19th Century period piece, you should know that the movie’s beauty is not just embellishment. Mr. Turner’s beauty is designed to contrast with its protagonist. As played by Timothy Spall, another longtime Leigh collaborator who won the Best Actor Award at Cannes earlier this year, Billy Turner is not far from the most unappealing and grotesque man you’ll ever meet. He is one twirly mustache away from being a cartoon villain, resembling Gargamel more closely than any British gentleman we’ve seen in film before.
why is he so gross? Well, for starters, he communicates almost exclusively in groans and growls. He is constantly hunched down, he breathes as if he were always out of breath, he spits onto his painting to keep the paint wet, and he laughs like a delighted pig, sweatily showing his crooked teeth. On this note, kudos to Spall for so willingly showcasing his most unflattering features, and for committing to such an unlikable personality. Animalistic is an accurate way to describe him. He moves like a beast and shares the sexual appetite of one too. He has fathered two daughters with a woman played by Ruth Sheen, but wants nothing to do with them. He greets his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) by violently grabbing her breast, and has his way with her too, without any intention of ever reciprocating the affection she clearly feels for him.
But not everything is quite as heartless about Turner. To a degree, we are asked to sympathize with this apparent monster, who in a manner not uncharacteristic of Leigh’s work, is not as much a bad person as he is just someone you would just rather never have to hang out with. We see Turner’s softer side pretty early in the movie, when he addresses his father (Paul Jesson) as ‘daddy’ for the first time. And also, when he falls in love with a widowed woman (Marion Bailley) who rents him a room in a small coastal town. When Turner first professes his love, he stumbles and kisses her as clumsily as we’d expect. The goodness and badness that can be found in this man cannot be divorced from each other
All of this brings me to the question: does Mike Leigh see himself as a figure as grotesque as the way he portrays Turner in this movie? I don’t know the man personally, but he doesn’t strike me as particularly distant or obtuse. And if we look to the way Turner was treated as an artist, and the way his groundbreaking impressionistic style was criticized and mocked at the time, we cannot find any moments in Leigh’s career in which his movies were dismissed as redundant or unartistic. If not hugely popular with audiences, his movies have been pretty much consistently been well-regarded by critics.
This is the discrepancy that keeps me from engaging fully with Mr. Turner. I feel like Leigh is trying to give me something beyond a thoughtful portrayal, like there is something about the movie that I still have to unpack. The question of how Leigh sees himself in relationship to Turner has been everything I could think about the movie, and the fact that the character of Turner is so richly developed (not a surprise when you consider previous collaborations between Leigh and Spall) makes finding an answer even harder.
But that is if, like me, you can’t help but engage with Mr. Turner as an entry within Leigh’s career. As far as the experience of watching it is concerned… Well, if I’m being completely honest the movie is a little too long for its own good, considering how not even half of the effort put in developing Turner’s character is put into trying to come up with a (traditionally) satisfying plot. Even then, I’d be hard pressed to find a redundant scene that doesn’t bring something new to our understanding of Turner as a person.
This is, after all, a Mike Leigh movie, and he is an incredibly observant director. At its best, the movie is almost too rich in detail, from the performances going all the way to the sets, props, and colors. The ultimate thing about my experience with Mr. Turner, though, is that the man ends up not being nearly as interesting as the idea of questioning why Leigh decided to make this movie.
Grade: 7 out of 10