Mr. Turner (Cannes Review)
The film is yet another exemplary work of art from a modern day master craftsman.
It’s been too long since we’ve had a Mike Leigh film, but four years is only long with Leigh because the gaps between his movies are felt more heavily than with most. Reviewers have to try and stay as impartial as possible when verbalizing the qualities of a film, but there’s no denying when a filmmaker just does it for you. Leigh is one such example for me. His insistence on working without a screenplay, using the actors’ personal experiences in the creation of the characters as much as possible, and his roots in theatre, all fuse together to form an organic style that has become something of a comforting blanket for me. His latest film, which had its world premiere at Cannes this morning, sees him returning to an examination of artistic sensibilities in the 19th century, a subject he hasn’t broached since 1999’s Topsy Turvy. While it never feels as close as his modern day takes of ordinary woes (Another Year most recently), Mr. Turner is yet another exemplary work of art from a modern day master craftsman.
Following the eccentric lifestyle of British painter J.W.M. Turner (Timothy Spall), the film covers some of the most captivating aspects in the last quarter of Turner’s life. Most notably, his relationship with his father, whom he affectionately still calls ‘Daddy’ (Paul Jesson) and his housemaid Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) whom he treats like an annoying pet until his carnal urges get the better of him. As we swing back and forth with Turner’s way of life, we follow wherever his inner compass leads us; the Academy of fellow painters, most of whom revere his work; the cliffs and hillsides overlooking the greatest object of his eye’s desire, the tumultuous seas; and a quaint little place he keeps finding inspiration in called Margate. During his visits there, he goes by the name of Mallard and keeps lodging with a chipper Ms. Booth (Marion Bailey). Leigh, together with his actors, cinematographer Dick Pope and composer Gary Yershon, takes us on a journey into the very ether of an artist’s soul, who (much like most artists) is a deeply troubled human being.
Slow off the mark, and slightly drowsy towards the end of it, Mr. Turner makes up for its, at times, lagging pace with its bombastic score and an exquisite kind of cinematography you want to bathe in. Spall will undoubtedly be a contender for Best Actor at Cannes; his gruff exterior portrait of a mad genius smothering the brewing storms he depicts with such passion (his conflicting marine landscapes are so much an extension of himself, he uses his own saliva to smear the colors in) and every other actor is a brilliant extension of Turner’s personality, from Bailey’s nonplussed Ms. Booth to a comical, albeit much too short, turn by Leigh regular Leslie Manville playing philosopher slash astronomer slash mathematician Ms. Somerville. But perhaps for the first time ever in a Mike Leigh film, the genial acting and dialogue (which will make you wish we still spoke in Victorian slang) meet their match with Pope’s photography. Effectively evoking the misty suns and pinkish hues of Turner’s paintings, a lot of the scenic stuff reminded me of the kind of majesty captured in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. If there was ever a case to be made of the intricate similarities between painting and cinema, look no further.
Ultimately however, and as always, it all comes down to Mike Leigh. If he doesn’t walk away with the Best Director, Palme or Grand Jury Prize (though it’s much too early to tell, and there’s no viable reason to the contrary) he will still be leaving the French Riviera a winner. His talent of getting under the skin of his characters and illuminating the hidden shadows that reside within us all is still unmatched. His penchant for comedy, a special highlight here involves a discussion of criticism versus art, is still very much present and welcoming. If you’re as big of a Leigh fan as I am, chances are you’ll be craving the next Leigh film just as much. The good news is that, along with all previous Leigh creations, we now have Mr. Turner to keep us company as well.