Mike Leigh's Demonstrates the Brush Strokes of a Master in 'Mr. Turner'

Leigh has created one of the best movies ever to explore the life of a painter and depict reality in the image of his artistic vision.

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Timothy Spall and Dorothy Atkinson in 'Mr. Turner.'
Timothy Spall and Dorothy Atkinson in 'Mr. Turner.'

Mr. Turner Written and directed by Mike Leigh; with Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Jesson, Ruth Sheen, Marion Bailey, Sandy Foster, Amy Dawson, Joshua McGuire, James Fleet, Sinead Matthews

When it comes to British director Mike Leigh, my favorite pictures are those that deal with contemporary British society – especially the ones he made between “High Hopes” (1988) and “Life is Sweet” (1990) to “Secrets & Lies” (1996), his greatest movie to date. I generally prefer these films to his somewhat academic biopics of British artists from the past – “Topsy Turvy” from 1999, which told the story of operetta-writers Gilbert and Sullivan, and now “Mr. Turner,” about the last 25 years in the life of the legendary British painter William Turner. Still, I have to admit that in “Mr. Turner,” Leigh has created one of the best movies ever to explore the life of a painter and depict reality in the image of his artistic vision.

Not many films about painters have managed to do this. Topping the list are two movies about Vincent van Gogh (Robert Altman’s 1990 “Vincent & Theo” and French director Maurice Pialat’s 1991 “Van Gogh”), and I also have fond memories of “Montparnasse 19,” a 1958 picture following the last year in the life of Amedeo Modigliani (Max Ophuls began directing it, but he died soon after the filming started, and the movie was completed by French filmmaker Jacques Becker). But while the lives of Van Gogh and Modigliani, filled as they were with despair and (in Van Gogh’s case) madness, gave the directors plenty of drama and even melodrama to work with. Mike Leigh in “Mr. Turner” took on a far more difficult task. William Turner, who was born in 1775 and died in 1851, did not live a dramatic life. He had some personal problems, but not unusual ones, and he was a respected and successful artist despite occasional clashes with his colleagues at the Royal Academy and with the British public, who considered some of his work too avant-garde.

Leigh’s movie shows us all that, but first and foremost it does something interesting on the creative level. Whereas Turner’s most famous paintings were landscapes, often prominently featuring the sea, Leigh uses Turner’s life and art to paint the portrait of a great artist as an eccentric, egotistical, arrogant, disgruntled and aggressive man. Combining this cinematic portrait with art that itself avoided portraits and turned instead to the British landscape results in an intelligent, episodic film that sweeps us into Turner’s world. Turner is impressively portrayed by the potato-faced actor Timothy Spall, who has already appeared in previous Leigh movies and won a Best Actor prize at Cannes for his role here.

I was familiar with William Turner’s paintings before seeing the film, but I knew very little about his life, and the discoveries offered by “Mr. Turner” accounted for much of the pleasure and interest I took in the film. Early in the movie, Turner returns from a trip to Belgium to his London home, where he lives with his father (Paul Jesson), a former barber who now serves as his son’s assistant, and a housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), who not only manages the household but occasionally provides Turner with some sexual release. Other significant figures in his private life are his former mistress (Ruth Sheen), who has been bitter and gloomy since he left her, and their two daughters (Sandy Foster and Amy Dawson), whom Turner refuses to acknowledge.

In the course of the film, Turner will meet another woman who becomes important to him: his married landlady (Marion Bailey) at the seaside town he visits in search of landscapes to paint. She is a lively, exuberant woman to whom Turner’s name and celebrity mean almost nothing. As one might expect of a British film, and certainly one by Mike Leigh, there are skillful performances by the entire cast, which also includes Joshua McGuire as the critic John Ruskin and James Fleet as John Constable, Turner’s main rival for the status of Britain’s greatest painter.

The movie manages to avoid the rather tedious fate of a standard British biopic; but this is not even the greatest virtue of “Mr. Turner.” Leigh’s picture offers a rich portrait of its hero, but above all it is a movie that grows out of Turner’s perspective on the physical reality around him, the same reality that nourished his art. Although Leigh does not stress it, his movie points to the enormous historical importance of Turner’s painting, which (among other things) foreshadowed and influenced the Impressionist movement.

Kudos are due to cinematographer Dick Pope, who has shot many of Leigh’s films and here offers striking images of the landscapes that influenced Turner. Unlike previous films about painters – for example, John Huston’s 1952 “Moulin Rouge” about Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 “Lust for Life,” another Van Gogh picture – Leigh does not try to recreate his subject’s painting style in his filmmaking. Instead, he and Pope show us Turner’s sources of inspiration, but keep them separate from the paintings we see, creating an interesting tension between painting, cinematography and cinema. That tension gives “Mr. Turner” a near-abstract level that emphasizes how far Mike Leigh is ranging outside the terrain of the typical British biopic – a tradition he both draws on and departs from in making his intelligent, mature picture. The occasionally academic nature of the result is not a hindrance, since the academic perspective is part of the artistic debate being waged in the movie.

“Mr. Turner” has some fine scenes that manage to turn a non-dramatic story into a drama – for example, the moment when Turner seems to deface one of his own paintings while arguing with his colleagues. The film also moves elegantly between the painter’s private life and work routine. In many movies about painters, scenes that show the artist at work feel artificial; not so here, where the painting scenes have a directness that makes them believable. This is the portrait of a working artist who, when he is not working, has to confront the reactions to his art.

As an artist known for his own difficult, disgruntled behavior, Mike Leigh seems to have identified deeply with Turner’s character, triumphs and predicaments, and his identification deepens the movie and gives it an added level of emotion. All in all, the 150-minute “Mr. Turner” is an impressive accomplishment, laudable for the way it uses the figure of a single artist to explore both art and cinema.