To capture the unique talent and life of JMW Turner on films takes a certain kind of audacity. The romantic era artist, known as the master of light, reportedly disliked the idea of photography (in the film he is critical of it being only able to capture black and white) but it would be surprising if he disliked Mike Leigh’s Mr.Turner, which – like the great artist’s work is both evocative and unique. It is unquestionably a masterpiece but it is so odd, so unconventionally un-cinematic in so many ways that it’s hard to take it all in in one go.
Much has been spoken about Leigh’s approach to filmmaking which involves numerous sessions of improvised character building before a script is ever formulated, it’s almost too easy to draw parallels with Turner’s unconventional style of painting, but it also valid, because the end product isn’t a film anyone is likely to expect (much like Turner’s pre-impressionist art was unlike most of his contemporaries’ work). Those looking for a The King’s Speech or The Queen should look elsewhere for standard – but still intelligent – biopics. Though the subject could easily become something like that, the fact that it doesn’t even come close to the cloying sentimentality of a standard biopic is a testament to Leigh’s clear sense of style and his unique vision.
Timothy Spall, as the eponymous grunting, phlegmy anti-hero, is transcendent. It is without doubt one of the most impressive and immersive performances in a film this year – perhaps this decade (though it must be said that a similarly extraordinary performance by Jake Gylenhaal in this week’s Nightcrawler comes close). Spall simply inhabits the curmudgeonly painter; the way he walks, talks and even works at his canvas paints a picture of someone who – though outwardly vulgar and, at times, grotesquely inhumane – has an extraordinary soul and insight into the beauty of the world.
This is no sob story with a rousing finale though, there is no Spielbergian climax during which a rousing score will make us reach for the hankies (though, it must be said, the film’s beautiful vistas are accompanied by a strangely ethereal and haunting score by Leigh’s regular composer Gary Yershon). There isn’t even a dramatic flourish to rouse us into applause as there was with The King’s Speech, but it is this reluctance to conform to that trope which makes Mr.Turner such a breath of fresh air, there is simply nothing quite like this film and that is why it is such a spell binding watch.
Some will find his approach too niche or inaccessible but it’s a fresh air at a time when multiplexes churn out either Oscar bait or superhero movies.
Although entrancing, it isn’t the unique approach which will have audiences leaving with something to talk about, it is the characters. The endearing Turner Snr (Paul Jesson), delightful Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey) and the aching longing portrayed by Dorothy Atkinson’s long suffering house keeper which mean that, despite Turner’s apparent lack of insight into human emotion, Leigh’s film about the man is bursting at the seams with humanity.
At times heartbreaking, frequently gorgeous to look at and entirely unique, Mr. Turner is an instant classic worthy of not one but three national treasures. The man himself would be proud, Mr. Spall and Mr. Leigh’s Mr.Turner is pure genius.
Mr.Turner is out now in cinemas everywhere. Image Rights; Film4, Focus Features International (FFI) & Lipsync Productions.