Friday, January 2, 2015

Genius at Work

Mr. Turner is a film about the energy and passion that drives a creative genius. For this film, that description refers both to its titular subject, J.M.W. Turner, famed 19th century British painter, as well as the film's director, Mike Leigh.

For most filmgoers - myself included - this is a work about an artist who will be a bit of a mysterious figure, as Turner is largely unknown outside of Britain. Born in 1775, he was a renowned painter of landscapes, often focusing on the subject of seascapes and ships. He was an artistic and to some degree, a financial success early in his career.

Interestingly, Leigh made the decision to only look at the last two decades of Turner's life in this film. We see a brute of a man, one who goes about his daily work with a certain flair, be it at his studio at home or at a gallery with his colleagues. He has great self-assurance of who he is as an artist, but his personal relationships, save for his father, are less than cordial. He has little time for his daughters, while he treats his devoted housekeeper with disdain.

One of the most fascinating things about this film is the focus on the work of Turner; reportedly Timothy Spall, who portrays the artist, spent more than a year learning how to paint. Turner is seen at every available moment either drawing something in his sketch pad or painting in his own distinctive way, sometimes spitting on the canvas, to add a bit of tone to the work.

The love of this period's paintings is detailed in great degree in the film. There is one marvelous scene in which Turner enters a gallery filled with canvases that line every wall, some of the works even approaching the ceiling. Other painters are there, some to view and debate the works of their colleagues, while others make final touches to their paintings. Ladders and wooden planks are part of this busy scene; this is a look at the beauty as well as the frenzy of the artistic scene in Britain at this time. This is one of the most revealing scenes in the film; it's also one of the most visually remarkable as well. The production design of Suzie Davies on this film is first-rate and marvelously detailed; her work is as much a part of the success of this film as anyone's efforts.

This film would not work however without a steady hand by the director and Mike Leigh provides such talent. At two and one-half hours, this is a movie that takes its time, yet it never feels dull or slow. We get to know Turner's work along with his relationships with others and it's the conflict in these scenes that give us an understanding into what he was all about. His scenes with his father, whom he dearly loved, are quite touching, as are the moments he spends with Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey, in a natural, engaging performance), an innkeeper whom he falls in love with. 

Leigh gives us a world of complex colors; you're as likely to see a beautiful countryside shot as you are the muted tones of an artist's studio. Working with cinematographer Dick Pope, the director has created a stunning looking work that is always arresting. One particularly beautiful moment has Turner walking by himself in a field while a few hundred or so yards away, several wild horses gingerly make their way up a small hill; it's a scene worthy of a painting.

As Turner, Timothy Spall is brilliant - I'm not sure I can praise him enough for his work in this film. He grunts and deliberately ambles his large frame though many of his scenes; he's a big man, often seemingly ill-willed, one who goes through life with utter assurance of his brilliance. Yet he is not an egotistical man; at one point he turns down a fortune to sell his paintings. He wanted others to see his work after his death, so money meant little to him, as long as he was able to afford his lifestyle. Spall is utterly convincing at giving us a multi-layered character.

We do see him let down his guard and become a more tender human when he meets Booth; she understands his intensity and is attracted to him. His transformation is quite touching, especially as it's not stated in night and day terms; it's more subtle than that. Their relationship helps Turner grow and expand his vision as an artist, as well as letting him find happiness in his life. Spall gives us a Turner of some humor as well as gentle affection in these scenes and he's equally convincing here as in the rest of the film. 

One other performance deserves praise - that of Dorothy Atkinson as Turner's housekeeper Hannah Danby. She is a quiet woman, physically troubled with psoriasis, going through her daily routine of tending to Turner's whims and needs, speaking only a few well-chosen words. She is in love with Turner, yet the only affection we see from him directed toward her are brief moments of lust. It's as though she is a human canvas to Turner, someone - or something - he can do what he wants to with. The fact that we are so moved by her performance in this unglamorous role is a testament to the work of Atkinson.

Mr. Turner is the work of a director at the height of his powers, one who makes us empathize with a man who displayed extraordinary talent while going through life with a less than sunny disposition. Mike Leigh treats us to a portrait of a unique individual who loved life and could find inspiration in simple beauty. After watching this film, one can say the same for Leigh; it's rare for a film biography to reach the emotional understanding this work has and we the audience should treasure it.

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