Tuesday, 13 February 2018
Directed by Mike Leigh
Entertainment One Blu Ray Zone B
I’ve always been a big admirer of Mike Leigh and will always think of him as one of the more opulent of the great British directors in the history of the medium. That being said, Mr. Turner is a film that I spent quite some time avoiding.
There were two reasons for this... firstly, although I am by profession a graphic designer and had the traditional ‘arty’ schooling that such a vocation demanded back in the days when education and actual knowledge about your subject were less scorned commodities than they are today, I’ve never really been enamoured of paintings with traditional subject matter. So artists like Turner, Constable, Whistler etc were out while people like Dali, Pollock, Warhol and Rothko were in, as far as I was concerned (and my tastes really haven’t veered much since those days, to be honest). So a film about Turner was not really ever going to be my first port of call.
Secondly, one of the things I really like a lot about Leigh’s cinema is the naturalistic acting and situations which he gets from his performers. I believe that a lot of creating of the parts and rehearsal time to build the roles and improvise the dialogue and action are a big part of his films and I just couldn’t see how this seemingly rigid, ‘biographical’ straight-jacket could sit too well with this style of artistic expression (it’s one of the reasons why I’ve also been avoiding Topsy Turvy).
However, I recently found out that, although not a specific admirer of Leigh like myself, my father had a strong desire to see this one and so, after my mother bought this for him for Christmas, I was in the seemingly unenviable position of having to watch it after all and... I have to confess... I liked it as much as my father did (which, for the record, was a lot).
Now I don’t have a great deal to say about this movie, to be sure but, I didn’t want to let myself down on my ‘see a film and then write about it’ promise to myself so... here I am writing about the thing. So be gentle with me if this is not as 'up to scratch' like some of my other reviews may, or may not, be... depending on your taste.
Okay, so lets start with the easiest thing to say in that the performances here are all absolutely marvellous. Especially, of course, when you have the wonderful Timothy Spall in the title role of J.M.W Turner. This performance is especially interesting due to the fact that, for the most part, Turner could apparently be a man of few words and much of where his dialogue might have been is, instead, transformed by Spall into a series of grunts and gestures. The other thing about it is, it would seem from the performance and ‘story arc’ here (if that is the right term to use in this instance), that Turner wasn’t exactly a spectacularly nice man and his relationships with other people were sometimes not the best that they could be.
Another excellent actor in this is Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s housekeeper (and sometime sexual partner, it would seem, among many) who really does kind of suffer as much as some of the other characters with Turner’s lack of... empathy, shall we say... with those around him. The character is kind of sidelined in the main narrative in terms of her impact on the man but ever present, hovering around the shots and the way she lets things slide and tolerates the whims and neglect of Turner is quite telling, in a way, about the mind of the painter. I believe that in real life she followed Turner into death only a couple of years later.
Now I really don’t know anything about Turner... although, I seem to remember the ‘incident’ depicted in this at the Royal Academy with the red buoy added to the painting and the quote about this act as being like Turner firing a gun shot, did come up in a lecture at college once... so the intentions of the director to deliberately inject Turnerisms visually into the movie are well beyond me to identify. However... coming from a cinematic artist who I would equate with having a fairly loose approach to his work, the shots seem to be much more rigid in their compositions and the frames have a richness of colour and light which I would, perhaps in my ignorance, term painterly. So I suspect the director has done his best to recreate some of the more famous of Turner’s works within the camera to the point that even I could tell that something was going on here. At the very least, I’m sure Leigh has enriched his compositions with the energy of the man’s paintings so, you know, if you’re a fan of Turner’s work then this picture is probably something you should see.
The film is intriguing, though, more for what isn’t said than what is and the actions (or lack of social niceties in some cases) paint an almost incomplete but appetite whetting portrait that arouses the curiosity and allows the audience to imply the arc of the character in his final years (which is the period portrayed here). Indeed, this conclusion of the sly spectacle of the ‘less is more’ approach here may well be because I have gone into the story completely ignorant of any aspect of this man’s life and, perhaps, the impressionistic strokes of Leigh’s artistic palette are meant to stimulate recognition of a story already well familiar to the majority of the audience finding their way to this work. However, as someone completely oblivious of the man’s path through life, I was certainly never bored with the characters on screen. Nor of the beautiful visual designs in which they’re captured so... you know... it’s okay to go to this one knowing nothing about the subject, too.
One scene, or series of scenes in particular, held my interest... when Turner goes to take another wife he gets a photographic portrait of himself taken for her... before bringing her back some time later for a shot of them both. His questions to the photographer and his own obvious technical expertise about lighting and so forth are highlighted, as are the hints of his expectations of the perceived future demise of his profession when photography started to capture realistic facsimiles of the everyday world. These are a nice couple of scenes and, like certain others, prod your brain into thinking about how Turner might have felt and reacted to this new fangled invention... the threat of photography.
And that’s really all I can say about Mr. Turner. As a big admirer of Mike Leigh I have to say that, although this is not on of my favourites of his works (I suspect Naked, Life Is Sweet and Happy Go Lucky may forever be my top three) it certainly is a spectacular and thought provoking film and, if you are a fan of cinema, or of Turner... and absolutely definitely if you are both... then you should probably take a look at this one as soon as possible. Another masterwork, of sorts, by one of the great British writing/directing talents of our time.