Sonic gets up alot earlier in the day than I do.
Here (in installments) the Mr. Turner reviews:
Chief Film Critic
Chief Film Critic @foundasonfilm
English painting’s renowned master of light, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), gets a suitably illuminating screen biography in Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” an ecstatically beautiful and exquisitely detailed portrait of the artist as a cantankerous middle-aged man whose brilliance with the brush overshadows his sometimes appalling lack of social graces. Returning to the large-canvas period filmmaking of his 1999 Gilbert & Sullivan bio “Topsy-Turvy,” Leigh has made another highly personal study of art, commerce and the glacial progress of establishment tastes, built around a lead performance from longtime Leigh collaborator Timothy Spall that’s as majestic as one of Turner’s own swirling sunsets. A natural awards contender across multiple categories, the pic rolls out Dec. 19 Stateside via Sony Classics following a bevy of further fest appearances.
Leigh has long spoken of wanting to make a Turner film, and his affinity for his subject is palpable in virtually every frame of “Mr. Turner,” which concentrates on roughly the last 25 years in the life of the painter who pushed landscape painting towards the vanguard of impressionism. When the movie opens, it is sometime in the late 1820s (in a welcome departure from the norm, the pic eschews any onscreen titles to mark the passage of time), and Turner, recently returned from a painting expedition in Belgium, is settling back in the home studio he shares with his elderly father (Paul Jesson) and the forlorn housekeeper (an excellent Dorothy Atkinson) who doubles as Turner’s lover. Among the skeletons in the painter’s closet are an estranged mistress (Ruth Sheen), two grown daughters and a grandchild, whom he collectively pays little mind and whose existence he denies to the outside world.
The family life is clearly not for Turner. Rather, he goes wherever the wind and the light carry him — specifically, to the southeastern coastal town of Margate, whose azure skies would inspire many of his paintings (including the much-celebrated “The Fighting Temeraire”). It’s there, traveling under a pseudonym, that he rents a small seaside apartment from the twice-widowed landlady Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), who will eventually become Turner’s last mistress. And it is this unlikely union, between art-world giant and country simpleton, that also becomes the emotional center of Leigh’s film, with the buoyant, big-hearted Bailey (who played one of the wealthy employers of the abortionist maid in “Vera Drake”) making a superb counterbalance to the feral and ferocious Spall.
Unlike “Topsy-Turvy” (which centered on the writing and staging of “The Mikado”), “Mr. Turner” employs a broader, more episodic structure that slowly and steadily immerses us in his world during the period when he was transitioning from classical representational painting to more abstract, proto-impressionistic forms (paintings like the ravishing “Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway” and “Wreckers — Coast of Northumberland” in which hazy, indistinct figures weave in and out of radiant swirls of land, sea and sky). It’s a heady snapshot of a London art scene dominated by the party politics of the Royal Academy of Arts, whose contentious group shows provide the setting for some of “Mr. Turner’”s most memorable moments.
As aspirants like the ill-fated biblical painter Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage) clamor for official acceptance — or to have their canvases displayed in the prestigious main gallery rather than a declasse antechamber — the already famous Turner thinks little of moving in the opposite direction, even as his increasingly avant-garde work becomes a subject of satirical parody and stinging bourgeois rebukes. And though Turner has at least one influential critic on his side in the young and impetuous John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), it isn’t clear that he appreciates having him there. When Turner admonishes Ruskin for praising his work at the expense of more conventional artists, the scene feels like a direct memo from Leigh to those who chronicle his own career.
In perhaps the greatest of all movies about the lives of painters, Maurice Pialat’s “Van Gogh,” not a single Van Gogh painting was ever shown. Leigh doesn’t go quite as far in “Mr. Turner,” but his sensibility is largely the same, striving to capture the temperament of the man and his times rather than reducing them to a series of iconic images and eureka moments. Scenes of Turner scribbling in his sketchbook and slathering paint on canvas are used sparingly, and never without a clear purpose. Shooting in widescreen, the director and his regular d.p. Dick Pope strive less to re-create Turner’s canvases cinematically than to capture something of the land and light as it might have inspired him: a steam locomotive cloaking the horizon in its exhaust; boats at sea wreathed in a magic-hour glow. Whereas Leigh’s much-vaunted work with actors has often dominated the discussion around his films, “Mr. Turner” should leave no lingering doubts that he is every bit as masterful a visual storyteller.
Despite the fact-based characters, “Mr. Turner” was developed through the same improvisational workshop process as all of Leigh’s films, and the results have same acutely researched and lived-in feel. That’s especially true of Spall, who so fully internalizes Turner that he doesn’t seem to be playing the part as much as channeling it. With his great squashed-in face, Spall shows you every flicker of thought that flashes across Turner’s mind, and every wince of pain that courses through his wearying body. He conveys the sense of a man driven by a talent and passion even he doesn’t fully understand — a raging, difficult, gruntingly inarticulate soul who finds in pictures the clarity of expression that otherwise elude him. And in the film’s final moment, as Turner lays hovering between life and death, Spall discovers a particular pathos in the dilemma of a man in love with light confronted by the fading of his own.
The topnotch tech credits extend to production designer Suzie Davies and costume designer Jacqueline Durran, who make their own invaluable contributions to bringing the film’s 19th-century world so vividly to life. Composer Gary Yershon’s original score alternates an atonal woodwind theme with sharp, staccato strings to create something like the musical equivalent of Turner’s restless, roiling spirit.
by Leslie Felperin
The Bottom Line
Mr. Turner manages to illuminate that nexus between biography and art with elegant understatement.
“The real trouble,” biographer A. J. Finberg once wrote in private about his subject, the painter J.M.W. Turner, “is that the only interesting thing about him is that he was the man who painted Turner’s pictures … [He] is only the unimportant nexus that binds the work together.” It’s as if those words were a gauntlet thrown down to director Mike Leigh, who with Mr. Turner has managed to conjure largely uneventful, if scrupulously well-researched, data into a luminous and moving film about one of Britain’s greatest artists. Anchored by a masterful performance by Timothy Spall in a role he was born to play, and gilded by career-best effort from DoP Dick Pope, working for the first time on digital for Leigh to bridge the gap between the painting and cinematography, Mr. Turner manages to illuminate that nexus between biography and art with elegant understatement.
Viewers drawn to Leigh’s sometimes caustic (and, in the past, sometimes a bit too broad) portraits of contemporary British manners and mores may feel a little bemused by what’s something of an outlier in his oeuvre. This is only his third period-set piece out of 12 features -- Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake being the other two.
Although thematically not dissimilar to the melancholy, domestic intimacy of his last, Another Year, Mr. Turner is a more somber, less humorous work than usual for Leigh. That and the lack of marquee-name stars may make this more of a marketing challenge than usual for distributors. On the other hand, Turner’s reputation may entice upscale, art history-enamored audiences, particularly among the older demographic, which has proved more inclined to buy tickets in recent years. Strong critical backing and likely award recognition should bolster its chances on the specialist circuit.
Although the time-frame spans roughly the last 25 years of Turner’s life, hardly anything momentous happens in the story, apart from a couple of quiet deaths from natural causes, some fantastically unsexy sex and a few arguments. The most exciting scene is arguably a kerfuffle in the Royal Academy when Turner riles rival painter Constable by suddenly daubing some red paint on his own canvas in what seems to be a fit of chromatic mockery. Per Finberg and Turner’s many other biographers, this taciturn, driven, extremely private man didn’t have an especially eventful personal life, although he lived through interesting times (1775-1851, a period spanning the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and the rise of the Industrial Revolution) and traveled incessantly. Reported budget limitations prevented Leigh from covering Turner’s career-changing visits to Europe, especially Venice, but the narrower focus on Turner in various domestic settings at home in England actually enriches the drama.
Played out in self-contained, single-setting scenes that nevertheless resonate with each other as the film unfolds, the script visits Turner on a number of fairly ordinary days that handily illuminate the key relationships in his life. At first, he seems closest is his father William (Paul Jesson), a former barber who’s happily taken on the role of subordinate studio assistant for his son. Likewise, housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) has accepted her lot as domestic drudge, and uncomplainingly submits when Turner requires her services for the odd quickie against a bookcase.
William and Hannah are the buffers for Turner against the outside world, the ones who show visitors around his private gallery in his London home (spied on by Turner through a peephole), although they can’t quite keep out the intrusions from Turner’s former mistress, the perpetually aggrieved Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), Hannah’s aunt, and his illegitimate daughters by Sarah, Evelina (Sandy Foster) and Georgiana (Amy Dawson).
Later, on a visit to Margate in search of the marine subjects that so obsessed him, Turner meets Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey, a delight), a jovial landlady with whom Turner will shack up later as husband and wife after her husband (Karl Johnson) dies.
Other scenes illustrate his tradesman-like dealings with clients, and his largely friendly but sometimes combative relationship with other artists serve to further illuminate character qualities such as Turner’s complex attitude towards money. For example, he needles a friend (Martin Savage) to repay a debt of 50 pounds over several years, but then refuses a princely sum from a rich manufacturer to buy his entire collection because he wishes to leave everything to the newly built National Gallery so people can see it for free.
It’s through the accumulation of these miniaturist details, specific right down to the way Turner grunts and waddles, that Leigh and Spall build up their layered, faceted portrait of capricious and curmudgeonly man whose personality bears a striking resemblance to the director’s own public persona. (As many a journalist will attest, Leigh is a notoriously prickly interviewee). The director obviously empathizes with his protagonist cussedness, and his monomaniacal devotion to his art, but what’s more resonant here is Leigh’s ability to draw out Turner’s soft, capacious underbelly, visible in his easy rapport with Sophia, or the way he listens keenly to Mr. Booth’s remembrances of working on slave ships, intelligence that would feed into one his greatest paintings, "Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On."
Filmmakers love biopics about artists, perhaps because of there is an innate thrill in seeing well-known images brought to life by actors. There’s less scope for that here given Turner was largely a landscape artist. Nevertheless, DoP Pope and Leigh succeed gloriously in finding a way to suggest the numinous quality of Turner’s work, his unique use of light and other elements to suggest, as one character puts it, the ways in which everything in nature is connected. To co-opt a notion much loved by Romantic artists, everything here is organically coherent, even if it was shot on digital, that most inorganic of media.
By Jonathan Romney
Dir: Mike Leigh. UK-France-Germany 2014. 149mins
Fictionalised art-historical biography has been one of the most fraught sub-genres in cinema. For all their virtues, films such as The Agony And The Ecstasy (Carol Reed on Michelangelo) and Lust For Life (Vincente Minnelli on Van Gogh) have demonstrated the pitfalls of trying to peer closely into the working lives of great artists, the dangers both of hagiography and of presumptuous psychologising.
It’s an ensemble film par excellence, but Spall makes a magnificent centre to the film, as a deeply eccentric, gruff, proudly individual man, huffing and grunting like a turkey, sometimes expressing deep pain, and cheerfully flaunting his knowledge of the classics – a man all in all suffused with the proverbial lust for life.
In his portrait of the visionary British painter J.M.W. Turner, Mike Leigh not only elegantly avoids these perils, but offers a film as successful in its tiny details as it is in its epic amplitude: Mr. Turner works at once as a warts-and-all portrait of the painter and his circle, and as a large-scale evocation of Victorian England. The film brings its period so energetically alive that the viewer comes to inhabit Turner’s age as intimately as we’ve inhabited the everyday Britain of Leigh’s contemporary films.
Built around Timothy Spall’s superb lead - but democratically highlighting many performances among its sprawling cast – Mr. Turner is hugely entertaining, deeply moving and will be especially tickling for anyone with a taste for sometimes grandiloquent, sometimes juicily profane period language. An eminently marketable tour de force that promises to expand Leigh’s faithful international following, Mr. Turner shows one old master saluting another with irreverent brio.
Building on the achievements of his previous 19th-century venture Topsy Turvy, Leigh and his team offer another highly detailed picture of the English past – with credit due to the achievements not only of production designer Suzie Davies and costume designer Jacqueline Durran but also of researcher Jacqueline Riding. Structured fragmentarily, the film covers the last 25 years in the life of Turner, shown as a solitary, cantankerous, uncompromising figure devoted to his art – sometimes tender, sometimes harsh or neglectful of his intimates, sometimes (we feel) deeply knowable but at others seemingly opaque.
After a prelude showing Turner painting in the Netherlands, the film skates from episode to episode. He comes home to London where he is greeted by his father, a retired barber (Paul Jesson) with whom he has a gruff but tender rapport (they call each other ‘Billy’ and ‘Daddy’) and his housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), who loves Turner and is sometimes his partner in brusque sex, but who is generally treated by him as a menial; in fact, much of the film’s emotional power comes from the sorrows of this mistreated, and psoriasis-afflicted woman.
Other key figures include the learned Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) who joins Turner for an experiment in light and magnetism; marginalized and embittered painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (Martin Savage); and Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), in whose Margate boarding house Turner takes a room, and whom he later starts courting in a scene that’s all the more tender for its taciturn delicacy. Many Leigh veterans give their best – among them, Manville, Savage, Ruth Sheen (magnificent as Turner’s spurned mistress) and Peter Wight, as a banknote-brandishing man of industry.
But the film also offers some revelatory performances from less familiar names such as Jesson, Atkinson and Bailey, whose characters are as richly limned as any in the Leigh catalogue. And there’s a very droll scene depicting eminent penseur John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) as a garrulous, grandstanding fop – seemingly Leigh’s barb at his own critics, even the adulatory ones.
It’s been common to call Leigh a ‘Dickensian’ director, for his interest in the rough edges of character, and that’s certainly an applicable term for a film that evokes Victorian Britain with a novelistic sweep. In fact, Leigh’s aesthetic here – both visually and in terms of social documentation – recalls not so much Turner, whose visionary swing towards near-abstraction is elegantly evoked, as painters like Haydon, whose ‘Punch, or May Day’ (1829) offers a parallel for this film’s ability to capture both a wide social tableau and the individual faces within it.
The film is as keenly focused both on fine detail and on the overall quotidian grubbiness of Victorian Britain, as well as the splendour; cinematographer Dick Pope evokes this world’s textures as tellingly as he did in Leigh’s other period pieces Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake. There’s just one misstep: a CGI evocation of the scene that inspired Turner’s beloved painting ‘The Fighting Temeraire’, the only moment at which the film sails close to standard art-biopic tropes, with the faintest edge of hyper-realist kitsch.
Overall, though, Mr. Turner is up there with cinema’s finest art-biography evocations – the likes of Peter Watkins’s Munch and Paul Cox’s Vincent And Theo, about Van Gogh and his brother. It’s an ensemble film par excellence, but Spall makes a magnificent centre to the film, as a deeply eccentric, gruff, proudly individual man, huffing and grunting like a turkey, sometimes expressing deep pain, and cheerfully flaunting his knowledge of the classics – a man all in all suffused with the proverbial lust for life. Moving, scholarly and serious as it is, Mr. Turner may be the most entertaining art biopic yet made – a grand canvas of inexhaustible riches.