Mike Leigh | 2hr 30min
It is not enough for Mike Leigh to simply evoke the world that Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner observed and rendered through his watercolours, splashing them across canvases with energetic brush strokes and vivid pigments. On every level of its cinematic construction, Mr. Turner inhabits these paintings with ethereal elegance, basking in picturesque seascapes and hillsides that project both a coordinated sophistication and organic naturalism. That gentle, scenic beauty is right there from the opening shot where Leigh’s long-time cinematographer, Dick Pope, diffuses a pale orange sunrise across the English countryside and riverbanks, the rough stretch of horizon in the background only broken by the silhouette of a windmill rising from the grassy knolls. This is the setting for one of Turner’s many journeys through nature, searching for the view that will become the subject of his next landscape, affectingly infusing the artist with their art. It is a fascinating layering of character, creation, and environment which Leigh conducts here, and one that he even stretches to a self-referential level in one trick edit that leads us to believe we are gazing at one of Turner’s extraordinary mountain paintings, before pulling back to reveal the man himself walking among the rocky green outcrops.
The biopic narrative of Mr. Turner moves slowly but meticulously, eschewing plot conventions that simply would not have served as unorthodox a figure as this in favour of a measured character study that breaks down the complex machinations of his rich inner life, which could hardly be gaged from the permanent scowl drawn across his face. He mixes in circles of writers, musicians, artists, and scientists, and though he has little patience for their conversations of narcissistic posturing, he relishes interactions with similarly passionate minds fascinated the systems of logic and beauty underlying the natural world. It is within those that he grounds his own creative processes, driven by a pure wonder at the way each hue carries its own unique character and purpose subconsciously understood by all humans.
This is rarely expressed so delicately as it is in one fictionalised meeting between Turner and Renaissance polymath Mary Somerville, where the scientist uses a glass prism to project a rainbow onto a canvas, exposing a thin needle to the violet light. After leaving it for a few hours, she reveals that it has become magnetic – a property that only this end of the colour spectrum can imbue. The eloquent words that come out of Turner’s mouth in response here do not seem to line up with the gruff, austere image he projects.
“Colour is contradictory.”
“Well, is it, Mr Turner? Colour is absolute.”
“Sublime but contradictory, yet harmonious.”
“You are a man of great vision, Mr Turner. The universe is chaotic, and you make us see it. In natural philosophy nothing can ever be proved, only disproved.”
“The purity of your prism, the contamination of my palette. Natural light, blackness. White is the power of good, black is the devil.”
There is something of a self-identification taking place here in Turner’s mind, as in those contradictions of colour theory he sees parts of his own paradoxical persona. All at once, he is both curmudgeonly and sensitive, bestial and intelligent, closed-off and compassionate. He callously refuses to acknowledge his daughters as his own, but he does take care of his elderly father who once worked as a barber, and from whom he may have inherited his dextrous hands. Perhaps this reflects his own complicated relationship with himself, being that he likens himself to a gargoyle far removed from the realm of his beautiful paintings, and yet he remains self-assured in his artisanship.
There is little denying the richness of Turner as an intricate character possessing greater depths and inconsistencies than his visage might suggest, and though much of this can be attributed to the resonant Dickensian dialect of Leigh’s screenplay, Timothy Spall’s metamorphosis into the role goes far beyond mere verbal expressions. His grunts essentially become a language of their own, communicating everything from frustrated displeasure to downhearted defeat, and in his shambling, portly physicality he projects the image of man who by all accounts should not possess such polished handiwork. His artistry does not exist in spite of his roughness, but the two merge in the processes of creation, as he spits, blows powder, and stabs at his canvas with paintbrushes, viciously attacking it as if it were the target of his utter disdain. Unconventional as his methods are, this is simply his manner of communicating with the world. He certainly possesses no musical talent, as we discover early on when he unpleasantly mumbles lyrics along to graceful piano accompaniment, and when he cries his sobs sound like inhuman, gut-wrenching growls. Verbally, he only ever seems to string words together with keen articulation when he is speaking of his artistic passion. The only medium through which he can effectively express himself is ultimately his painting.
It is just as much through Suzie Davies’ superb production design as it is Pope’s stunning landscapes that Turner’s interior life is defined, as Leigh uses her period décor and doorways to wrap the artist up in tight frames that seem opposed to his natural habitat in the open air. Golden sunlight filters through open windows into studios where his creativity flows without restriction, and here his large, half-painted canvases become vivid backgrounds to his own cathartic endeavours. These meticulously curated sensibilities carry through to the galleries he frequents, where lush green and red walls peek out from behind golden frames of historically famous artworks. Leigh especially relishes faithfully recreating authentic showcases such as the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1832, which marks the most famous instance of Turner’s showboating, where he marks a single, red stroke on his seascape Helvoetsluys in response to the attention being directed towards John Constable’s neighbouring oil painting. After two days of derision from spectators, critics, and fellow artists, he returns with a rag, and with a single smear turns it into buoy floating above the waves, drawing the eye to this vibrant, colourful splash of spontaneity.
Perhaps it is this impulsive display of ingenuity which most pointedly indicates the intuitive nature of Turner’s artistry, willingly adapting to the whims of a world beyond his control. When a storm strikes, he seeks assistance in tying himself to the mast of a ship to observe the raging tempest up close. When he is lying on his deathbed, even then he is driven by compulsion to leave the house and examine the cold, grey corpse of a local girl who tragically drowned. So immersive are Leigh’s vignettes depicting pieces of Turner’s character that they may as well be considered a gallery spanning decades of his life, with the only unifying threads being his creative work and the odd, loving admiration shared between him and his landlady, Mrs Booth. Though she calls him a “man of great spirit and fine feeling” and he tells her she is a “woman of profound beauty,” their love never quite develops into anything officially recognised. Constrained as it is, their peculiar affection may be the only passion of Turner’s that exists independent of his watercolours, though even she recognises that it will always be secondary for him. His final words are telling of where his deepest adoration lies.
“The sun is god.”
It is that ball of fire bringing life to all spectral colours which he finds taking up his last thoughts, and whose light that Leigh directs his attention to in his final seconds. Atop a hill overlooking the ocean, the radiant sunset burns pink and red, and Turner’s rounded silhouette imprints against it with calm surrender. Few films have captured such aesthetic tranquillity as this, and even fewer have done so with such a coarse, prickly figure at its centre, yet Leigh’s orchestration of these beautiful contradictions elevates Mr. Turner to an exceptional calibre of historical biopics worthy of its subject’s raw talent.
Mr. Turner is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.