by Kathie Smith
Mike Leigh’s films offer a unique dichotomy between their quotidian subject matter and their uncommon emotional resonance, measured in the weight of their heart-breaking gravity. A champion of working class Londoners, Leigh charts the meanderings of non-events in the lives of idiosyncratic personalities: a family man sets out to make a career change in Life is Sweet, an adult adoptee decides to find her mother in Secrets and Lies, an overly optimistic woman decides to get her driver’s license in Happy Go Lucky, and a happy married couple, well beyond middle age, passes time with friends and family in Another Year. The flip side of these simple portraits is a very complicated method of capturing humanity—grace and frailties alike—through gifted acting and rich dialogue discovered by Leigh’s technique of structured improvisation. The resulting osmotic empathy, in all its various forms, is a rare gift that few movies are able to give audiences.
Director: Mike Leigh
Producer: Georgina Lowe
Writer: Mike Leigh
Cinematographer: Dick Pope
Editor: Jon Gregory
Music: Gary Yershon
Cast: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Karl Johnson, Ruth Sheen, Sandy Foster, Amy Dawson, Lesley Manville
Premiere: May 15, 2014 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 19, 2014
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Mr. Turner incorporates these elements, but also finds Leigh working within the constraints of a period piece, like Vera Drake, and beloved biopic material, like Topsy-Turvy. The Mr. Turner in question is Joseph Mallord William Turner, an early 19th century painter (and British icon) known for his landscapes and seascapes. Turner’s importance to modern painting would be hard to overstate—bridging a gap between Romanticism and Impressionism and, perhaps more importantly, looking forward to abstraction with no shortage of controversy. Focusing on the later years of Turner, the movie does right by the painter and the period by giving an intimate portrayal drenched in lumbering verisimilitude, with an eye for visual grandeur as well as ardent suffering. But tied to a biographical trajectory (specifically, failing health and eventual death), Mr. Turner’s brilliant sparks of life get pushed aside for a slow obligatory push to the end.
Setting the tone, the movie opens with Turner (Timothy Spall) in Holland, sketching and studying the Dutch light as the windmills turn and women pass wearing their winged bonnets. Leigh and his longtime cinematographer Dick Pope take great pains in making a movie that is an extension of Turner’s visual experience, framing lush green knolls, windswept oceans, glassy waterways, and tumultuous skies in ways that don’t seem to exist today. Breathtaking references to his paintings, such as The Fighting Temeraire (1839), Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), and, most dramatically, Snow Storm (1842), pepper Mr. Turner, as do quiet independent motifs of Turner with the backdrops of nature that so inspired him. An overhead shot that shifts down of Turner fishing in a small boat on an impossibly still lake may be one of the most beautiful shots of the year.
Turner’s life in London is an indiscriminate schedule of attending social events hosted by patrons, participating in the Royal Academy, and accepting studio visits by friends, eccentrics, potential buyers, his cast aside lover (played by perennial Leigh actress Ruth Sheen), and his two illegitimate daughters. His constant companion and most avid supporter is his father William (Paul Jesson), who works as his assistant mixing paints and acting as house butler. Turner’s maid (Dorothy Atkinson), a homely creature, dotes on the painter, confusing his selfish sexual advances as love (or perhaps the only love she has ever known). Spall gives a physical and vocal performance, easily filling Turner’s shoes and more than worthy of the Best Actor Award at Cannes. Although an adopted member of high society due to his status as a master painter, Turner is a rough and often belligerent character, grunting as a form of communication with little regard toward public perception. Sharing an admiration for composer Henry Purcell with a pianist, he even unexpectedly breaks into song with a sincere yet warbly Tom Waits-like voice.
The best moments in the movie take advantage of Leigh’s abilities to sculpt unconventional conversations out of thin air, effortlessly settling into a time and place that seem outside of the grasp of our imagination without Leigh’s help. The first of these come when pioneering scientist Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) comes to Turner’s house and demonstrates how sunlight, diffracted through a prism, can magnetize a needle. The banter around this presentation factors in Somerville’s outré nature, Turner’s gruff personality, and Turner’s father’s wide-eyed charm, and has a way of spinning off into ordinary 19th century small talk that seems unquestionably authentic. The same thing happens when Turner stays at a boarding house in Brentford and he strikes up a conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Booth (Karl Johnson and Marion Bailey), who run the inn. With an unwavering respect for their characters, the trio discuss life, loss and hardship with such candidness, we feel as though we are eavesdropping. (Johnson’s brief appearance, much like Imelda Staunton in Another Year, nearly steals the show.)
Film history buffs will revel in the amount of detail given to the characters who drop in and out of the narrative: the financially troubled painter Benjamin Haydon, art aficionado and critic John Ruskin, and landscape painter John Constable, mocked by his fellow Brits including Turner. The specificity of some of these individuals occasionally feels like an inside joke, including a sequence where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert peruse the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, but it is merely an attribute to Leigh’s attention to detail rather than an attempt to be exclusive.
Mr. Turner starts an emotional downward spiral after Turner’s father dies, casting signals of Turner’s depression made worse by losing critical and popular favor with his new work. At 150 minutes, however, Mr. Turner takes its time with everything and its final descent towards death, with only brief moments of levity, is painfully drawn out. Turner finds a companion in Mrs. Booth, the now widowed innkeeper, and he continues to paint despite (or perhaps stubbornly because of) people’s ridicule of his wild abstractions of earth and sea. Overall, misery, and what feels like a need to keep a timeline, override the brilliantly textured ambiance of the first half of the film. Leigh captures both a time and a personality with such uncommon panache, the final (very long) reel comes across as unnecessary. By spending the majority of the time expounding on the dolor of a great man, Leigh unfortunately fails to break out of the constraints bound by a historical scheme and, as a result, misses the boat on doing what he does so well—soliciting our core, fallible empathy—traded for a visually enchanted but emotionally draining understanding.