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“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.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (competition)
Production: A Film4, Focus Features Intl., BFI presentation in co-production with Diaphana, France 3 Cinema, Amusement Park Films, with the participation of Canal+, Cine+, France Televisions, produced by Xofa Productions in association with Lipsynch Productions of a Thin Man Film
Cast: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Ruth Sheen, David Horovitch, Ruth Sheen
Director: Mike Leigh
Screenwriter: Mike Leigh
Producers: Georgina Lowe
Executive producers: Tessa Ross, Norman Merry, Gail Egan
Co-producers: Michel Saint-Jean, Malte Grunert
Director of Photography: Dick Pope
Production designer: Suzie Davies
Costume designer: Jacqueline Durran
Editor: Jon Gregory
Music: Gary Yershon
Casting: Nina Gold
Sales: company name
No rating, 76 minutes
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Women in Entertainment 2022
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