Perhaps Mike Leigh’s latest period picture (three of his last six films have strated from the present day) is indicative of a director who is increasingly comfortable with casting his net wider for material as he approaches his dotage. Perhaps. Mr. Turner, a rambling, unfocussed account of the last third of the artist’s life, is readily identifiable as a Leigh picture, only with its patronising treatment of working class characters slightly lidded under the mores and speech of more than a century and a half hence.
I invariably enjoy Leigh’s films, but his tendency to caricature has always been a bugbear, along with his appetite for letting sentiment swell forth from the melodrama. Here, we see the former exemplified in the one-note comedy nag that is Turner’s ex-mistress Sarah Danby (Leigh regular Ruth Wilson) and his inevitably crude dig at the upper classes as personified by Joshua McGuire’s twittish art critic John Ruskin. Nevertheless, the actual satire of art criticism in the Ruskin scenes is quite amusing; Turner’s interrogation of Ruskin, in which he asks him to which he is more partial, a steak and kidney or a steak and ham pie, makes for a highly satisfying demolishing. I guess my problem is, I’ve seen Leigh essay this sort of posh prat one too many times before.
Mr. Turner is frequently very playful, much of this down to Timothy Spall’s spirited (and Oscar nominated and Cannes Best Actor-winning) performance. Turner is frequently characterised by a collection of grunts or bronchial wheezes, registering unverbalised contempt or disagreement. However, when he does speak his language is invariably laugh-out-loud funny, a compendium of Dickensian erudition (“conundrous” indeed) and deadpan humour.
Cinematographer Dick Pope (or Poop, as he is also known), Leigh’s regular collaborator, furnishes the film with some stunning digital landscapes. If the interiors don’t really impress, except when lit from without, as a means to view a scene from a window, this is more than made up for by the vistas, and the creation of painterly light. Seaside Margate, sunlit rivers, cliffs, mountains, and skies are lensed in transportative fashion.
This is understandably the most exacting of Leigh’s films when it comes to the image itself, a means to appreciate the eye of the artist. Leigh is also careful to comment on the changing landscape of art. Mr. Turner takes in the mockery that greeted Turner’s transition from figurative to impressionistic, which involves his improvising foodstuffs as painterly materials. The satirised form of this, whereby the wealthy and foolish will buy anything masquerading as art is summed up by the stage recital “It is the latest thing in art, it looks like bits of old jam tart”. Such a response might be compared to modern artists like Hirst and Emin. There’s also Turner’s guarded reaction to the new medium of photography. Learning that colour remains a mystery, he mutters “And long may it remain so”.
The depiction of the artistic establishment is also effective, from miserablist debtor Haydon, played by Martin Savage (“Mr Haydon, you’re exceedingly tiresome”; Haydon later rejoinders “Do you not tire of boats and the fiery firmament?”), to Turner’s feud with Constable and the bizarre varnishing day in which artists would competitively apply finishing touches to their work.
But much of the picture concerns itself with Turner’s personal life. It’s not quite a portrait of the artist as a shagger, but his mistreatment of housekeeper Hanna Danby (Marion Bailey), niece of Sarah and his neglected sexual vassal, and affair with Sarah Booth (Marion Bailey) take up much of the running time.
The plus side of Leigh’s approach is that he eschews the typical biopic treadmill of “This happened then this happened” for a less precise, more anecdotal affair. The downside is that he cannot escape the structural curse of the biopic; we still finish up with him snuffing it. Mr. Turner is leisurely in the extreme, which isn’t a problem per se, but it has little glue holding its parts together, relying on the audience’s goodwill towards its characters.
Individual scenes are nice-and-all (the encounter with Lesley Manville’s scientist Mary Somerville and her insights into magnetism, where she is given the appealing line "The universe is chaotic and you make us see it") a bawdy song sung at a respectable gathering and the gasps it gathers) but they’re indicative of the wilfully meandering decisions Leigh has made. He hasn’t so much unfurled a broad canvas as leapt about all over it with little clear design.
One review referenced how appropriate it was that Leigh didn’t win any big prizes (apart from Cannes, of course) for Mr. Turner, as both he and his subject were anti-establishment figures. That seems to be blindly ignoring Leigh’s frequent BAFTA wins and regular Oscar nominations. Not that the academy(s) are particularly prone to bestowing deserved prizes on the best and brightest, but the lack of garlands for Mr. Turner may be more of a recognition that a great performance and spellbinding cinematography don’t necessarily make a masterpiece.