“You are a man of great vision, Mr. Turner.”
Mike Leigh is considered to be one of the greatest active filmmakers working today (along with Michael Haneke, Claire Denis, Bruno Dumont, Olivier Assayas, & Carlos Reygadas) so I had a feeling his latest film Mr. Turner, a bio on the romantic painter JMW Turner, would be great, but I honestly didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really know anything about classic art. I was worried I wouldn’t fully appreciate Leigh’s latest film due to my lack of knowledge of both Turner and his art.
I remember sitting in a sold out theater at the Film Forum watching Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan “biopic” I’m Not There and getting genuinely pissed off at every burst of laughter or recognition of an obvious inside Dylan reference because I knew absolutely nothing about Bob Dylan and couldn’t completely appreciate a film directed by one of my favorite filmmakers (I consider Safe and Poison to be two of the greatest modern films ever made). I knew these Bob Dylan fans I was surrounded by weren’t familiar with Safe or Poison. They didn’t earn the right to enjoy Haynes’ work if I couldn’t. I know that sounds elitist and selfish, but that’s how cinephiles get sometimes (I’m also an only child, so sharing doesn’t always come easy to me).
I didn’t want a repeat of I’m Not There. I wanted to be prepared for Mr. Turner so much that prior to seeing it, courtesy of a sneak preview at The Museum Of The Moving Image, I looked past the simple Wikipedia bio and sought out a book on JMW Turner’s life (“JMW Turner: A Bio”) months before seeing Leigh’s film. I didn’t doubt that Mike Leigh would leave things out or misrepresent the life of JMW Turner. I just wanted to be a little more knowledgeable on the subject.
Now…did reading the JMW Turner biography enhance my viewing experience of Mr. Turner? Not really. I’m still not even that crazy about classic art (although I’ve always appreciated and respected the craft). But it speaks volumes about a film when you can truly enjoy it without having to know any kind of back story or history (throughout the film Leigh gives little nuggets of info about Turner’s past).
Like other semi-recent biopics, Mr. Turner is successful because it doesn’t try to cram an entire lifetime into one film (Mr. Turner makes up for the mild disappointment that was Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini, which did follow the same format as other good biopics but came out feeling a little flat and underwhelming). To this day, certain specifics are unknown about the early life of JMW Turner. There is no confirmed birth date listed, his early paintings don’t have any specific dates and certain facts about his family are a little cloudy. Delving in to this part of his life would only lead to speculation on Leigh’s part. Instead, Leigh focuses on the latter part of Turner’s life where he deals with the death of his father (whom Turner was not only very close too, but also served as his studio assistant). We also see JMW Turner fall in love as well as battle depression and harsh critics of his art (Leigh leaves out his drug use, grazes over/lightly touches on the fact that he probably fathered two daughters that he clearly didn’t care about, and does speculate/get liberal with a few small facts here and there).
Mr. Turner is also a success because it paints a complex portrait of the artist. Instead of making him out as this incredibly wonderful human being that’s dedicated to his art, the film shows him as a frustrating and kinda grumpy person (Timothy Spall plays the title character with a distinctive grunt). But I think it’s been documented at this point that a lot of talented/brilliant/genius artists, from Miles Davis to John Cassavetes (and everyone in between), straddled the line between pleasant & unpleasant.
Leigh’s exploration of JMW Turner and his art reminded me of Peter Greenaway’s exploration of “the frustrated architect” in The Belly Of An Architect (complicated, angry, happy, sad, frustrated, etc). And like Greenaway did with the architecture in his films, Leigh represents Turner’s art in a respectful & organic way through the course of the film…
However, Mr. Turner is not a reflection of Leigh’s own life in the way that The Belly Of An Architect kind of was/is for Greenaway (although there is a scene in Mr. Turner that, just like in Chef, is clearly a jab at critics that has to represent Leigh’s own personal view of some critics). And I know this sounds a little cliché but certain shots in the film (courtesy of Leigh cinematographer Dick Pope) look like the kind of landscape paintings that Turner would paint…
The cinematography in Mr. Turner (which is bound to be downplayed and overshadowed by the bells and whistles of the camerawork in Birdman and Interstellar) is probably my favorite thing about the film next to Spall’s lead performance (probably the best thing he’s done since All Or Nothing). Besides Vera Drake and Topsy-Turvy (which Mr. Turner is closest too in terms of tone), Leigh has never done a period movie. Mr. Turner is, in my opinion, the first Leigh film to be shot the way it was (rich colors, beautiful landscapes, etc). It’s pretty great to see a veteran like Mike Leigh step outside of his comfort zone and try something new (…and succeed at it).
The film is unique in that it’s bound to attract post-Vera Drake Leigh fans (who for whatever reason feel as if they’re aficionados of his work because they’ve seen that and Happy-Go Lucky), but it’ll also please all the die hard fans as the film fits in perfectly with the rest of Leigh’s work and features plenty of his regulars (in front of & behind the camera) like Timothy Spall, Shirley Manville, Ruth Sheen, and Dick Pope.