Movies, Reviews, Verite film magazine

Review – Mr Turner

My review of Mike Leigh’s simply Mr Turner from the greatly missed Verite Film Magazine is after the jump…

MR. TURNER

Scr/dir Mike Leigh

Cast: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Karl Johnson, Ruth Sheen, Sandy Foster, Amy Dawson, Lesley Manville

150 mins, cert 12A, release date 31st October.

A biopic sketching the autumn and winter years of the life of the English painter J.M.W. Turner, Mr. Turner’s opening shot of Dutch milk maids crossing the screen as a windmill spins in the magic hour both evokes Dutch Masters and raises suspicions of a stately piece of heritage cinema. It is a sly sleight of hand as Mike Leigh moves from this meticulously crafted image to the earthy streets of London Town thick with pedlars, street traders, animals, filth – the very stuff of life – as we meet the elder Mr. Turner (Paul Jesson) buying paint for his son’s studio. 

When J.M.W. himself enters the scene properly, it is in an explosion of salty dialogue and the film springs out of the realm of static tableau into bold and rude life. Played by Timothy Spall like an a priapic old badger this is a remarkable performance full of energy. Leigh’s script fashions a narrative out of two distinct aspects of Turner’s life, his status and importance in the arts world of the day, and his complex and contradictory romantic and physical relationships with women. 

At the beginning of the film Turner is at the height of his fame and fortune, he is perfectly in sync with the tastes of both the elite of society and the popular imagination. He is a man of wealth and means, able to travel for inspiration (although he returns time and again the the coastal landscape of Margate, the town where he was schooled). Although gruff in the extreme (at least 50% of Spall’s dialogue is comprised of grunts, snorts and growls) Turner has an uncanny eye for natural beauty, coupled with an insatiable appetite for emerging science and technology. There is a delightful scene where he visits a photographer’s studio and to the immense irritation of the photographer can barely sit still due to his curiosity over his techniques (which the man is clearly trying to guard). This is a time when the separation between the arts and the sciences was far less pronounced and there is a clear implication that Turner is feeding into the development of newly emerging optical technologies as much as he is feeding off of them. 

But this is no hagiography, Leigh has no interest in canonising Turner and Spall clearly relishes playing a character of light, shade, and contradiction. This is nowhere more evident than in Turner’s ‘romances’. Although a bachelor, he has two daughters whom he refuses to publicly acknowledge (although he supports them and their mother). However the two major female relationships in the film are exemplars of the positive and the negative sides of his character. He has a sexual relationship with his housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) that borders on exploitation. While the woman is clearly deeply devoted to him, Turner gradually spurns her for an elderly widow Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey) from whom he rents a room on visits to Margate. The two relationships are kept compartmentalised, as Turner’s reputation suffers when late career experiments are not appreciated by his contemporaries he becomes prone to bouts of depression. It is Hannah Danby who is at his side and aiding hime through his black moods. Mrs Booth only ever sees the lighter side of his personality. 

While this is where the dramatic meat of the film resides, it would be remiss not to remark on the film’s humour. This is a drama as fully rounded and fleshed out as the performance at its heart. The darkness of the time and Turner’s character is absolutely matched by the excitement and potential of creation and discovery. As much as there is loss, poverty and disease, there is magnificence and humour. In fact this is often an extremely funny film. 

Historical scholars may quibble that the film’s portrayal of the art critic and patron John Ruskin is somewhat unkind. As played by Joshua McGuire, Ruskin is a lisping fop and there is an extended drawing room scene in which an interminable conversation about the correct climate for the cultivation of gooseberries becomes a platform for Turner to gently humiliate Ruskin. 

In fact Ruskin was a great champion of Turner, stood by him when his late career experiments caused him to fall out of favour, and was a named executor in Turner’s will. This version of the character plays slightly to Leigh’s weakness for indulging in caricatures of the upper classes (see also Naked). However this is a very minor quibble and crucially the ‘gooseberry scene’ is one of the funniest pieces of cinema this year. Leigh is luxuriating in some gentle ribbing of critics in general. Clearly appreciated in the spirit of banter from the reactions of critics during the London Film Festival press screening.

Leigh is not necessarily the first director that springs to mind when one thinks of exquisitely crafted visual imagery. Here with the assistance of regular cinematographer Dick Pope he has created a film that finds the visual poetry of a great master painter so expertly it is as if you are seeing how Turner viewed the world, how his eyes captured the play of light and dark across a blue sky as a storm front moves in. The visual mastery of the filmmakers is absolutely matched by Spall who brings an intensity to Turner’s gaze that feels like a window into an artist’s viewpoint. The actor is also physically committed, in the many scenes of actual painting he is completely convincing, getting his hands literally dirty and spitting on the canvas. We already know that Spall is a very fine actor, but this is the sort of performance of which Daniel Day Lewis would be proud. It is one that I suspect will define his career.

All the supporting players are very fine, but particular attention must be paid to Atkinson’s portrayal of Hannah Danby. Shambling, under increasingly navy makeup (Danby suffered from severe psoriasis), physically contorted, the elegant actress is nearly unrecognisable but succeeds in making her character far more a comic turn. In fact as Turner grows more and more distant from her even as he relies on her as an emotional crutch, she becomes a figure both tragic and strong, another of the many contradictions this film chooses to embrace.

Leigh’s majestic film is the cherry on the top of a magnificent year for British film. It is however a very tart fruit soaked in port, rich and intoxicating.

MR. TURNER

Scr/dir Mike Leigh

Cast: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Karl Johnson, Ruth Sheen, Sandy Foster, Amy Dawson, Lesley Manville

150 mins, cert 12A, release date 31st October.

A biopic sketching the autumn and winter years of the life of the English painter J.M.W. Turner, Mr. Turner’s opening shot of Dutch milk maids crossing the screen as a windmill spins in the magic hour both evokes Dutch Masters and raises suspicions of a stately piece of heritage cinema. It is a sly sleight of hand as Mike Leigh moves from this meticulously crafted image to the earthy streets of London Town thick with pedlars, street traders, animals, filth – the very stuff of life – as we meet the elder Mr. Turner (Paul Jesson) buying paint for his son’s studio. 

When J.M.W. himself enters the scene properly, it is in an explosion of salty dialogue and the film springs out of the realm of static tableau into bold and rude life. Played by Timothy Spall like an a priapic old badger this is a remarkable performance full of energy. Leigh’s script fashions a narrative out of two distinct aspects of Turner’s life, his status and importance in the arts world of the day, and his complex and contradictory romantic and physical relationships with women. 

At the beginning of the film Turner is at the height of his fame and fortune, he is perfectly in sync with the tastes of both the elite of society and the popular imagination. He is a man of wealth and means, able to travel for inspiration (although he returns time and again the the coastal landscape of Margate, the town where he was schooled). Although gruff in the extreme (at least 50% of Spall’s dialogue is comprised of grunts, snorts and growls) Turner has an uncanny eye for natural beauty, coupled with an insatiable appetite for emerging science and technology. There is a delightful scene where he visits a photographer’s studio and to the immense irritation of the photographer can barely sit still due to his curiosity over his techniques (which the man is clearly trying to guard). This is a time when the separation between the arts and the sciences was far less pronounced and there is a clear implication that Turner is feeding into the development of newly emerging optical technologies as much as he is feeding off of them. 

But this is no hagiography, Leigh has no interest in canonising Turner and Spall clearly relishes playing a character of light, shade, and contradiction. This is nowhere more evident than in Turner’s ‘romances’. Although a bachelor, he has two daughters whom he refuses to publicly acknowledge (although he supports them and their mother). However the two major female relationships in the film are exemplars of the positive and the negative sides of his character. He has a sexual relationship with his housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) that borders on exploitation. While the woman is clearly deeply devoted to him, Turner gradually spurns her for an elderly widow Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey) from whom he rents a room on visits to Margate. The two relationships are kept compartmentalised, as Turner’s reputation suffers when late career experiments are not appreciated by his contemporaries he becomes prone to bouts of depression. It is Hannah Danby who is at his side and aiding hime through his black moods. Mrs Booth only ever sees the lighter side of his personality. 

While this is where the dramatic meat of the film resides, it would be remiss not to remark on the film’s humour. This is a drama as fully rounded and fleshed out as the performance at its heart. The darkness of the time and Turner’s character is absolutely matched by the excitement and potential of creation and discovery. As much as there is loss, poverty and disease, there is magnificence and humour. In fact this is often an extremely funny film. 

Historical scholars may quibble that the film’s portrayal of the art critic and patron John Ruskin is somewhat unkind. As played by Joshua McGuire, Ruskin is a lisping fop and there is an extended drawing room scene in which an interminable conversation about the correct climate for the cultivation of gooseberries becomes a platform for Turner to gently humiliate Ruskin. 

In fact Ruskin was a great champion of Turner, stood by him when his late career experiments caused him to fall out of favour, and was a named executor in Turner’s will. This version of the character plays slightly to Leigh’s weakness for indulging in caricatures of the upper classes (see also Naked). However this is a very minor quibble and crucially the ‘gooseberry scene’ is one of the funniest pieces of cinema this year. Leigh is luxuriating in some gentle ribbing of critics in general. Clearly appreciated in the spirit of banter from the reactions of critics during the London Film Festival press screening.

Leigh is not necessarily the first director that springs to mind when one thinks of exquisitely crafted visual imagery. Here with the assistance of regular cinematographer Dick Pope he has created a film that finds the visual poetry of a great master painter so expertly it is as if you are seeing how Turner viewed the world, how his eyes captured the play of light and dark across a blue sky as a storm front moves in. The visual mastery of the filmmakers is absolutely matched by Spall who brings an intensity to Turner’s gaze that feels like a window into an artist’s viewpoint. The actor is also physically committed, in the many scenes of actual painting he is completely convincing, getting his hands literally dirty and spitting on the canvas. We already know that Spall is a very fine actor, but this is the sort of performance of which Daniel Day Lewis would be proud. It is one that I suspect will define his career.

All the supporting players are very fine, but particular attention must be paid to Atkinson’s portrayal of Hannah Danby. Shambling, under increasingly navy makeup (Danby suffered from severe psoriasis), physically contorted, the elegant actress is nearly unrecognisable but succeeds in making her character far more a comic turn. In fact as Turner grows more and more distant from her even as he relies on her as an emotional crutch, she becomes a figure both tragic and strong, another of the many contradictions this film chooses to embrace.

Leigh’s majestic film is the cherry on the top of a magnificent year for British film. It is however a very tart fruit soaked in port, rich and intoxicating.

FIVE STARS

Standard

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