The opening scene of British director Mike Leigh’s new film, “Mr. Turner,” is paralyzing in its beauty. The year is 1820 and two women walk on the beach at sunset. In the background is a windmill. The clouds change color every moment – red, then orange, then pink. The two approach the camera, but instead of focusing on them, the camera focuses instead on the distance, where we suddenly see a well-dressed man wearing a hat, holding a pad of paper in his hand, sketching furiously. This man is one of the great British artists – JMW Turner (played by Tim Spall), who was born in 1775 and died in 1851.
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“Mr. Turner,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival (where it was nominated for the top prize, the Palme d’Or) and opens in Israel this week, is an extraordinary biography. Instead of showing us the tumultuous and tragedy-filled life of Turner, whose style is credited as laying the foundations for Impressionism, Leigh’s screenplay focuses on the last 25 years of the artist’s life, when he divided his time between the home where he had been born and raised (in London) and the southeastern coastal town of Margate, where he met and fell in love with a widow named Sophia Booth (played by Marion Bailey), who became his mistress. During that time, Turner went from being one of the most successful and admired painters in the British art scene to a figure of ridicule because of his gradual transition from landscape paintings to an abstract style.
The 71-year-old Leigh, whose films include “Abigail’s Party” (1977), “Secrets & Lies” (1996) and “Happy-Go-Lucky” (2008), approaches “Mr. Turner” as one approaches any artwork: Almost every scene looks like a painting thanks to the phenomenal cinematography of Dick Pope – Leigh’s regular collaborator – while the insistence on filming many key scenes at sunset puts the viewer in the artist’s shoes (Turner earned the title “the painter of light” for his mastery of the various hues).
“There hasn’t been a motion picture about Turner, so I thought it was about time we made one,” Leigh tells Haaretz. “He is great, one of the great painters in the world and obviously the greatest of the English painters ... The more I looked into it, the more I realized that Turner was a modern personality – this conflicted, eccentric, passionate guy ticked all the potential boxes for a character in a Mike Leigh film ... a complex, vulnerable, strong, weak, human being, like the rest of us.”
Leigh had nurtured the idea of making a biopic about him for many years. Although the film is based on a true story, the British cast began work using Leigh’s own unique process. After research lasting many years – in order to map out and recreate not only Turner’s life, but also the language, fashion, furniture and cultural discourse of 19th-century London – Leigh wrote the skeleton of a screenplay that focused on the major incidents of the artist’s life. Later, the actors began working in groups that included rehearsals and improvisation to build their characters, and only after that did filming begin.
Eccentric and repulsive behavior
The result is a two-and-a-half-hour drama that describes Turner’s rise and fall. Alongside its focus on his famous landscape paintings, including “The Slave Ship” (1840) and “Dawn after the Wreck” (1841), Leigh’s film tells the story of Turner’s love life. Turner refused to acknowledge the two daughters whom his mistress, Sarah Danby, bore him (Danby appears in two scenes to tell him exactly what she thinks of him). In an act quite uncharacteristic of the time, Turner firmly refused to become a family man, choosing instead to live with his elderly father (played by Paul Jesson) and housekeeper (played by the excellent Dorothy Atkinson), who later became his lover.
As opposed to the conventions of the biopic, Leigh refuses to use flashbacks to shed light on the eccentric and sometimes repulsive behavior of Turner, who often growls and makes animal noises instead of forming complete sentences. Instead of showing its subject’s life from childhood to old age, “Mr. Turner” provides viewers with a rich and varied image of the British art scene.
Leigh said that, in a way, the project was the closest he had ever come to making a documentary. After the screening at Cannes last May, people asked whether the ships that could be seen through Sophia Booth’s window had been added with special effects. But, except for one scene with a huge steamship, no effects were used, Leigh explained.
As we watch “Mr. Turner,” it is hard to believe we are seeing a movie rather than a painting. “It was less reproducing the work and more evoking the spirit of what [Turner] was looking at, what he was seeing, what inspired him,” said cinematographer Pope. “For example, what inspired him to journey to Margate in the first place, which was, and still is ... famous for its light and its wonderful sunrises. There’s a lot of it where we’re looking through his eyes, across his shoulder, in terms of the camera. One thing’s lighting, but another is where we place the camera – that’s more important than anything else, because, in our vantage points in the film, we are looking from Turner to what he’s observing.
“We studied together, Mike and I, almost everything we shot, and decided when we were going to be there, at what time of the day,” Pope said, adding that he and Leigh had waited for the sunset on quite a few shooting days, pursuing the same hues and sights as Turner himself.
Interestingly, in “Mr. Turner” Leigh moves away from the social-realist films that made him one of the highest-regarded British directors. If “Naked” (1993), “Secrets & Lies” and “Vera Drake” (2004) dealt with real characters living on the fringes of society, “Mr. Turner” abandons victims of oppression and persecution in favor of the artistic elite. Still, Turner’s meeting with people who were involved in the slave trade in one form or another charges some of the scenes with racial and class tension.
At the same time, “Mr. Turner” documents the winds of change. In one of the film’s most wonderful scenes, Turner goes to a photography shop to have his portrait taken. As one who tried all his life to reproduce reality with his palette, the moment he first sees a camera is one of anxiety and wonder. Over and over, he asks questions about the lens and the mechanism that operates it, and finally sits – with obvious discomfort – in front of the young, energetic photographer who promises him that the shot will take only 10 seconds.
Leigh believes photography changed painting, challenging it and making it more abstract. Turner was a brilliant man, he said, and recognized this change before anyone else. As early as the 1840s, Turner knew that the status quo was about to change forever.
At one point in the film, when Turner and one of his female acquaintances enter his London studio, the woman says enthusiastically, “The universe is endless, and you make me look at it anew.” Considering the obsessive precision of detail and color in every scene of the film, this seems to be the challenge that Leigh and his crew took upon themselves.
“Mr. Turner” opens in Israel on December 11.