Dir. Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville
Review By Greg Klymkiw
It seems fitting that the first film biography of the great Romantic landscape painter JMW Turner, oft-referred to as "the painter of light", is the product of one of the world's greatest living directors, Mike Leigh (Life is Sweet, Naked, Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Topsy-Turvy). The exquisite properties of light in cinema, the glorious dance of film through a projector, the astonishing grace, promise and amalgamation of so many mediums into one, all driven by exposing and rendering the luminosity which, Turner proclaimed on his deathbed as God itself, is what yields this astonishing, moving celebration of a supremely important visual artist.
In a sense, Turner captured the qualities of light and motion on canvas in ways I always felt are what led to those same properties finding their way to be emblazoned forever upon celluloid to capture the heart, soul and visual radiance of illumination, of nature, of life itself. Not unlike insects drawn to amber to be sealed and preserved for all time, Turner's brilliance was creating work that could live forever and inform all visual arts. In his own way, he might well have had the soul of a filmmaker if technology had somehow moved its way up to meet him halfway. Thankfully, we have Turner's legacy of genius, and now we have Mike Leigh's glorious film.
Mr. Turner is perfection incarnate. It is so magnificent that one cannot imagine a greater testament to an artist and his art. Leigh captures a man, an aesthetic movement, a time of ideas and exploration and ultimately, he creates the means by which we can transport ourselves to an era where the sky was the limit with a simple, but deeply felt brush stroke.
Beginning with Turner (Timothy Spall) in middle age and continuing to his death, Mike Leigh pulls off the near-impossible in capturing what being a great artist is. Making use of a myriad of sumptuously-composed tableaux through the lens of cinematographer Dick Pope, Leigh gives us a glimpse into the process that defines artistry, but also allows us a fly on the wall perspective of what indeed might have made this great man thrive. Most wondrously, Leigh achieves this by cinematically recreating and/or imagining both Turner's work and what precisely the great artist could well have seen with his own eyes to inspire his breathtaking visions on canvas.
We delight in numerous scenes of Turner creating, socializing amongst the rich and famous, sparring with other artists and various intelligentsia of England's literary, critical, academic and artistic elite and most of all, Leigh provides us with a deeply felt and meticulously researched film that allows us to experience, at least from Leigh's considered eye, what made Turner tick as a human being. On one hand, he valued a Bohemian lifestyle, while on the other, was able to traverse with considerable freedom due to his wealth and fame. And much as we might crave a wholly sentimental portrait, Leigh fleshes Turner out, warts and all.
Turner eschews his duties as a father to the daughters born from an affair earlier in life and furthermore treats his long-toiling maid servant as a sexual receptacle for his gropings and loin-thrusts, in spite of the mounting ravages of psoriasis which wrack her body. Conversely, hs eals shown to be a man infused with great romance and tenderness, especially in his relations with a widow who at first provides him with seaside lodgings and eventually, a bed to share. Even more passionately, Turner is revealed to bear congenial familiarity and the deepest love for his father, a former barber and now his personal assistant and manager. Turner's connection to his father seems to know no earthly bounds and we both feel and believe it with the same conviction that leads our jaws to drop when he displays utter disregard and contempt for the mother of his illegitimate daughters.
This whole tale unravels in an unconventional manner which makes us think we're on board a solid narrative engine, thrusting ever forward, but in reality, we're cascading on a near-poetic series of vignettes, an episodic odyssey of an artist during one of his richest periods. It is Turner's discoveries as an artist that really carry us along, but the creative vessel, in spite of the occasional pock marks of selfishness and self-graitification in Turner, is also replete with humanity and we experience the man's ever-increasing love for life just as he's also at a point where he begins to sense his own mortality.
The pace of Leigh's film is leisurely, but never less than fascinating. He creates a world of so far away, so long ago, yet there is no fairy tale quality at play here, but rather an acute sense of time and place, so much so that we feel like the proceedings are rooted in a strict adherence to reality and historical accuracy. This, of course, is not to suggest there is no magic since Leigh conjures scene after scene which dazzles us with the sheer magic inherent in the way in which people must have lived. The dialogue and conversations, the drawing room and parlour discussions, the gorgeous, heart-achingly beautiful slowness of life, all unfold in a manner to allow both audience and characters to take in every moment and breath along the way. It is a pace perfectly in keeping with a world we'll never experience, but that we can participate in as viewers and get an overall sense of the pieces of Turner's time which Leigh captures so indelibly for our benefit.
There isn't a single false note in any of the exquisite performances. Even background extras live and breathe with the stuff of both humanity and fully-fleshed character. Though the pleasures from all principal and supporting players are almost incalculable, the film finally belongs to the astonishing Timothy Spall as Turner. Delightfully gruff, curmudgeonly, jowly and turtle-paced in everything, lest he spies a natural beauty of the world which ramps up his facial and physical gestures well beyond his normal demeanour, are just a few of the extraordinary feats of acting Spall offers. But Leigh has made a film of the deepest humanity and so too does Spall render his performance. There are moments in Spall's performance which will never, ever leave you. One of the greatest of these sequences is a look of despair Spall creates for Turner as his father dies before him. It's a look that blends sobs and laughs, tears and a crazed toothy smile and a sense that we are witnessing a man who becomes all too aware of life's dichotomous properties.
And yet, there is always the light, the glorious light. How appropriate then that Leigh begins and ends his film with the Sun in all its splendour. How, in a film that's all about light, could it ever be anything else?
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars
Mr. Turner opened theatrically on Christmas Day at TIFF Bell Lightbox via Mongrel Media and will be released to the rest of Canada over the coming weeks.
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