DIR/WRI: Mike Leigh • PRO: Georgina Lowe • DOP: Dick Pope • ED: Jon Gregory • DES: Suzie Davies • MUS: Gary Yerson • CAST: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Karl Johnson, Lesley Manville
The great Mike Leigh returns to our screens with a pleasingly eccentric look at the later period in the life of the great British painter JM Turner. The film focuses mainly on Turner’s relationship with various people – his father, the house maid who he has curious, carnal exchanges with and Sophia Bush, a widow who Turner strikes a fondness with when lodging in her house in Margate.
Present along with these are the subtle but integral presence of Turner’s strange relationship with his own daughters. Turner, on the surface, has no interest in them. There’s a brilliant scene when his aunt tells him of a tragedy involving them. With the camera facing his back, Turner does not express any emotion forthrightly, however, his hand gestures tell a different story, expressing a hidden pain. Turner is depicted as a complex, frequently decent, sometimes animalistic force of nature. The strangeness of his relationship with his children is perhaps summed up in another sequence in which Turner tells another artist that he should not inflict his own problems on his loved ones. Hints at Turner’s estranged mother and curious goings-on with her in his youth, add further richness to him as a character and to the film as a biopic. Leigh here makes points on the irreconcilable differences between an artist and his work and the inability of people, no matter who they are, to communicate with their loved ones. Leigh goes a step further in suggesting that no matter how close one is to a person, they will never really know them or understand them fully.
As is always the case with Leigh, the performances are outstanding. In painting such a comprehensive yet mysterious picture of Turner, Leigh needed the extraordinary ferocity, vulnerability and humanity that Spall brings to the role. His pervasive sighing and grunting sometimes turns into robust, borderline violent sex, with the aforementioned housemaid or sometimes into maniacal laughing, joy and generosity of spirit. Spall deservedly won best actor at Cannes in May for his stunning work here. The supporting players are all impressive as well. As the house maid, Atkinson finds the perfect balance between the weariness of her day to the day life and the subtle, honest expressions of fondness she exhibits for Turner. Bailey too is impressive. Her character of Sophia Bush comes across as similar to many other characters seen in films before. She is in many ways a sort of quintessential mother figure – kind, gracious, modest, loving, naive – yet Bailey and Leigh strive and succeed in making her into something new and fresh and ensuring there is a genuine believability to her character.
The honesty and complexity with which Leigh paints his characters, be they real as here or fictional as in others, is one of the key facets of his work. Dick Pope’s cinematography is quietly beautiful while Gary Yershon’s score adds a further level of oddness to proceedings. With Mr. Turner, Leigh once again confirms his status as a genuinely unique British filmmaker. While it may not quite reach the heights of his very best work, it remains a rich, engrossing and very moving piece of work.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Mr. Turner is released 31st October 2014
Mr. Turner – Official Website