Mr Turner, Mike Leigh's biopic of the artist, features Timothy Spall's finest performance since Secrets & Lies, says Robbie Collin
31 October 2014
In the new Mike Leigh film, Mr Turner, you can hardly miss the Mister. Joseph Mallord William is a sore thumb from the opening scene, where he’s sketching a windmill somewhere in rural Holland, poised like a pot-bellied stork among the rushes. The scene tells you everything you need to know about the man and the places he feels happiest: in short, it’s landscape as portrait, and Turner would have smiled at that.
Leigh’s film is a supremely enjoyable biopic of the English artist known as “the painter of light” – someone whose canvases, which revelled in the possibilities of colour and movement, could almost be early forerunners of cinema.
Turner is played by Timothy Spall, who gives the finest performance of his career to date, surpassing even his work in Leigh’s Secrets & Lies 18 years ago. It won Spall the best actor prize at Cannes this year, and the question now is just how far the role can take him: the the Baftas, almost inevitably; as far as the Oscars, very possibly. It’s a musty performance, one that gets in your clothes and hair, and that’s absolutely meant as a compliment. Spall coughs and shambles about the place like a moulting, phlegmy Gruffalo, eyes bright and hungry, bottom lip jutting proudly forward like the spout of a custard jug.
His repertoire of grunts alone comfortably extends past a hundred, and you wonder if perhaps Spall went Method for the role, living for years in a sty until he got the voice, posture and smell just right. But beyond the troughfuls of fun tics, Spall makes Turner tenderly and totally human, which has the effect of making his artistic talents seem even more God-given.
The film begins in 1826, with Turner 51 years old and in the ascendant. He works from a studio in his London town house, where his housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) and elderly father, William Senior (Paul Jesson), keep things ticking over.
Turner’s dealings with them both, including solemn groping of the former, are brisk and straightforward. The painting process, though, is very different: Leigh shoots it in a way that it sometimes resembles an occult ritual. Early in the film, when Turner’s father visits a paint shop to replenish his son’s supplies, you see the pigments are piled up on silver platters, like spices in a souk, or potion ingredients, begging to be mixed.
Light is what moves Turner, and he moves with the light. The film spans the quarter-century until his death in 1851, and we follow him wherever he goes. At a patron’s country estate, he tussles with a gloomy rival (Martin Savage) and tries to sing a Purcell aria – he does it amusingly badly but also tenderly, and finding the precise point of articulation between the two is pure, neat Leigh.
In Margate, Turner meets a friendly landlady (Marion Bailey), who comes to play an important role in his later life. At the Royal Academy, we see him buzzing around, joking with friends, dishing out advice and, in a perfect, self-contained skit, winding up John Constable (James Fleet).
The film is studded with such gem-like supporting roles, many of which are taken by regular Leigh players, including Lesley Manville and Ruth Sheen. Picking favourites is too difficult, but let’s just say the lisping writer and patron John Ruskin, hilariously played by Joshua McGuire as an oblivious smartypants, has stwuck a chord with a few of us cwitics.
In its shape, Mr Turner is very much like Topsy-Turvy, Leigh’s superb, under-seen 1999 film about the comic-opera writers WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, set during the writing of The Mikado. But this is an even more ambitious work about the making of art, in which the process is not just shown as an almighty, if often very funny, strain, but something that, when done correctly, and with the stars aligned just so, can bear the artist past death and into history.
When Leigh recreates the scene that inspired Turner’s 1839 masterpiece The Fighting Temeraire, he shows the artist finding hope not in the old, exhausted warship being tugged to her last berth, but the squat, blackened tugboat in front.
“The ghost of the past,” says one of his friends, nodding sorrowfully at the larger vessel.
“No,” Turner barks. “The past is the past. You’re observing the future! Smoke. Iron. Steam!” Leigh and Spall’s genius is to show us both in one man: Turner is future and past, progress and history, tugboat and Temeraire.
Mike Leigh's acclaimed biopic of JMW Turner earned Timothy Spall a Best Actor award in Cannes for his portrayal of the artist
What the other newspapers are saying
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: "Mr Turner is funny, humane and visually immaculate, hitting its confident stride straight away. It combines domestic intimacy with an epic sweep, and a lyrical gentleness pervades each scene, tragic or comic. Every line, every detail, every minor character, however casual or apparently superfluous, is absolutely necessary."
Geoffrey MacNab, The Independent: "Mike Leigh's biopic is a rambling, richly detailed character study with a magnificent central performance from Timothy Spall. This may be 19th-century costume fare but it is made with the same precise attention to its protagonists' yearnings and comic foibles as we find in Leigh's contemporary dramas with Spall, whether Secrets and Lies or his woefully underrated All Or Nothing."
Dave Calhoun, Time Out: "Not only do we end up with a vivid, surprising and soulful sense of one artist and his work, but Leigh also offers us a commanding view of a city, London, and country at the dawn of the modern age and of a man being overawed and overtaken by new technologies such as photography and the railways. As ever with Leigh, 'Mr Turner' addresses the big questions with small moments. It's an extraordinary film, all at once strange, entertaining, thoughtful and exciting."
Nigel Andrews, Financial Times: "It’s a beautiful film because it isn’t afraid of beauty’s uglinesses. Artists don’t personify the ideal or dazzling worlds they envision. They are the workshop, not the work. So it’s right, in a biopic, that we see the mess of the creative life."
David Sexton, Evening Standard: "Mike Leigh takes the painting seriously enough. He says he used actors in the film who could actually paint and Timothy Spall, who plays Turner so magnificently, learned to do so for the part. Yet the film never tries to explain Turner’s art, merely showing his mastery by the speed and certainty with which he attacks the canvas, scrubbing it with a brush, rubbing it with his finger, spitting at it even."