5 November 2014 | MOscarbradley
We always knew that "Mr Turner" would not be a conventional costume picture any more than it would be a conventional biopic. It is, after all, a Mike Leigh film and Mr Leigh doesn't do 'conventional'. Of course, he normally concerns himself with the vagaries of contemporary middle-class culture, poking fun at, and then finding the bleeding heart of, the little people who inhabit his very personal world. (Leigh is, perhaps, the only writer/director who can crack us up and break our hearts simultaneously).
"Mr Turner" isn't the first time he has looked to the past nor to real historical figures for his material. With "Topsy-Turvy" he created the world of Gilbert and Sullivan and 'The Mikado'. As musical biopics go it is, perhaps, unique. Now with "Mr Turner" he takes us deep into the life of William Turner, arguably the first great 'modern' painter and almost certainly the greatest of all English painters, and in doing so has created the least stuffy costume picture I have ever seen. Of the several masterpieces Leigh has given us "Mr Turner" may be the finest.
It begins when Turner was already in middle-age and established as England's premier painter and it follows him until his death. It reveals him to be a man of many contradictions, sharing his later life mainly with two women, (he had long since disregarded his shrewish wife and grown-up daughters whose very existence he always denied). For sexual favours he turned to his housekeeper Hannah Danby while preferring the company of the widow Mrs Booth with whom he lodged part of the year in Margate, (Danby never knew of Booth's existence until just before Turner's death). He could be both cruel and kind in equal measure, both to his contemporaries and to those he professed to care about and he certainly had a temper.
We don't learn a great deal about his technique as a painter though we do see him, briefly, at work, including a wonderful scene, one of several great set-pieces, where he adds a daub of paint to one of his canvases at the Royal Academy's Exhibition. It's not really that kind of film. Leigh is more interested in observing the man and getting inside his skull and in this he is greatly helped by Timothy Spall's magnificent performance as Turner, capturing the man mostly in a series of grunts. Spall's Turner doesn't go for deep, philosophical conversations on the nature of art. He seems happiest making small-talk with Mrs Booth and when, in another of the film's great set-pieces, the conversation veers into the critical appraisal of a fellow artist he is quick to debunk the pretentious John Ruskin who obviously likes the sound of his own lisping voice.
Spall, of course, is just the lynch-pin of a terrific ensemble. No-one puts a foot wrong, (including Leigh regulars Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville), but one must really single out Dorothy Atkinson as the unfortunate and much maligned Danby and Marion Bailey as Mrs Booth. Both women are superb, giving us characters that are much more than mere historical sketches. There is something deeply moving in their silent acceptance of Turner's foibles, (and while Leigh's dialogue is splendidly 'of the period', it's often in the silences that the film is most effective). Credit, too, to Dick Pope's superb cinematography which captures perfectly the paintings without seeming in any way slavish. Indeed, of all films made about artists this may be the finest. I don't doubt for a moment that it's a masterpiece.