BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: Four years ago, Mike Leigh released one of the finest films of his oeuvre. I saw Another Year at the London Film Festival gala premiere and I still consider it the only perfect film of this decade thus far. As a result, expectations for his long awaited followup Mr. Turner were very high. Especially as it’s ostensibly his most ambitious, even moreso than Topsy-Turvy, also a period drama, that ultimately won 2 Oscars, the only Oscars any of his films ever won. Nevertheless, he’s frequently a gift basket receiver at the ceremonies, garnering obligatory screenplay nominations and the odd directing nom, the last of which being for Vera Drake 10 years ago. His organic storytelling, balance of abstract concepts, ability to orchestrate extraordinary performances and his sardonic sense of humour resonate with critics and audiences alike.
However, he’s not always a crowd pleaser, and Mr. Turner in particular has divided audiences, though not enough to hinder its current awards progress. It’s clear to see why. This biopic of the visionary 19th century artist J.M.W. Turner is dense and cryptic. In Leigh’s impeccable attention to detail, not just in the production and costume designs, the language is authentic to the convoluted dialect of the upper class of the period and thus it’s hard to follow the sparse plot, even for fans. It’s unusual for Leigh to adapt a true story, he often starts from scratch, but true to his form his script here defies traditional structure. It’s a liberating free form style, sampling scattered moments of Turner’s life, not building to anything specific but just exploring what shaped his idiosyncratic perspective. As a result, the film has grit hard to find elsewhere, and although it’s difficult to decipher, it’s enchanting for some.
Headlining the film is Timothy Spall’s colossal performance. He’s always been a highlight of Leigh’s films when he’s been involved, especially his knock out performances in Secrets & Lies and All Or Nothing. This is the role he was born to play. Tossing narrative aside, the film’s primary concern is the character study of Turner, a brilliant but flawed man, and each sequence adds layers upon layers of dimensions to him as they swirl in anguish. Spall wears those emotions on his sleeve with a perpetual sneer, grumbly grunts and a piercing stare. The moments where he breaks down have the weight of an earthquake. He’s at once a force of nature and has a tender vulnerability. But as illustrated by the exquisite opening shot, he is above all a man of his art and watching Turner paint with a chaotic elegance is fascinating, especially as the results develop over the film.
The ensemble around Spall gives ample support, including the fleeting appearances from familiar faces such as the seething Ruth Sheen as the bitter mother of his estranged children and the delightful Lesley Manville as a sprightly scientist who conducts an art orientated experiment. The standouts however are the warm glow of Marion Bailey, Turner’s landlady of his second home and mistress, and the anxious agony of Dorothy Atkinson, Turner’s housekeeper who he frequently engages in sex but who suffers from a disfiguring skin disease. Bailey has her great moments, especially when she’s overwhelmingly flattered, but Atkinson in particular has such heartbreaking conviction that she bursts from the background of her scenes.
What makes the film Leigh’s most ambitious project is the cinematography. He’s always had a great eye for blocking and making the kitchen sink cinematic, but Dick Pope’s work here broke the mould. It’s obvious to call it Turner-esque, but that’s the intention. It’s almost like a David Lean precision of waiting for a cloud to move in the right place. It was indeed whenever Leigh and Pope encountered landscapes like this on other films that inspired them to pursue this film. Some shots cover more ground than he covered in the entirety of his early films. Not only are the outside shots beautifully composed, but also the inside, using wide angles to keep the grand scale. A collaborator since Happy-Go-Lucky, composer Gary Yershon’s forlorn oboe contributes to the rich ominous tone. It’s interesting that for a film about art and colour that it’s saturated with browns, blacks and greys.
The inherently meandering plot does lead it to becoming bloated, but it attempt to be an insight the many different facets of Turner’s life and how that feeds into his work, something applicable to all the great artists. It also considers themes of legacy, one perhaps self-aware in hindsight, but important in context. It’s a complex film, and it needs another viewing until I’m fully ready to embrace it. As like life, it ends unresolved and I’m still not sure what to make of it. I must be one of the few people who didn’t feel it was too long, but only because I was hungry for something more conclusive. Leigh doesn’t make it easy for us, but gives us everything to work with. For what I can digest so far, it’s a gargantuan achievement.
Due to that inaccessibility and the length of the film, awards attention outside of critic’s awards is unlikely. Perhaps it could get a couple of BAFTA nominations, Leigh is not the sweeper people think he is there but it will no doubt get noms for Spall and Best British Film. If there were any justice, it would get Cinematography, Production Design and Costume Design across the board as for even people who didn’t like the film can’t deny their prowess. Leigh may miss out on that Original Screenplay nomination as the film is looser than his usual output, but particularly because the dialogue needs a double take. It is going to be difficult to imagine where Leigh will go from here but Mr. Turner duly satisfies a thirst for now.