Mike Leigh explores the last twenty-five years of the romantic painter JMW Turner’s life in this period biopic.
Mike Leigh’s latest film blends the domestic wanderings of one of Britain’s greatest painters with a visually immaculate rendering of the landscapes that inspired him. Timothy Spall plays the romantic painter with a guttural vitality, grunting and shuffling across the screen.
Leigh laboured over his script for years while he gathered the funding for the film and it really pays off in this biopic. Turner’s dialogue varies from the incredibly articulate (although often expressed with a working-class authenticity) to the monosyllabic. Leigh uses hearty grunts as a way of signaling Turner’s pleasure or indifference at situations, a trait that is historically synonymous with the enigmatic painter.
Leigh’s approach to this film is almost Dickensian in its sentimentality. It explores Turner’s emotional inner turmoil as he finds it hard to maintain relationships, but it is also a tragic tale of fallen women, from the sclerosis suffering loyal maid Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) to Turner’s Margate lover Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). Leigh makes a point of highlighting Turner’s inability to love or be loved, as he treats his ex-wife and daughters with contempt and distances himself from them. It is only after the death of his beloved father that Turner seeks solace in his sprawling Margate seascapes, and in the lodgings of the widowed Mrs. Booth.
Thematically Leigh does focus on the tragedy of Turner’s life, but amongst the tragic backdrop we see the glimmers of the painter’s brilliance. For example there is one scene where Turner encounters Constable at a Royal Academy show where Turner mocks the painter’s use of colour by adding a red buoy to one of his seascapes. Spall’s energy in the actual painting scenes is spectacular as he spits and scratches at the canvas. Many of the comical moments are centered around the domestic environment of Turner’s home where his maid Hannah Danby busy-bodies around him to his bemusement, and occasionally gropes at her when he fancies. But within this domestic setting is a tragic fictional narrative of Hannah Danby’s unrequited love for Turner and her complete devotion to the painter.
One of the central themes of the film appears to be a man who is petrified of death, as his mother and father are taken from him, yet drawn towards it. His only real outbursts of emotion are when his father dies, and Turner grieves while frequenting brothels or forcing himself on his maid. Leigh portrays Turner as someone who values his experiences of life over his own health and relationships. Even during a supposedly romantic outburst for Turner he announces to Mrs. Booth that she is ‘profoundly beautiful’ in an understated manner before groping her on the staircase with the gracefulness of a drunken Bill Sykes. Turner seems to reserve his true emotions and passions for the canvas to the point that everything else in his life becomes secondary.
It was a bold decision to make this period biopic on digital film and some praise should be reserved for Leigh’s cinematographer (Dick Pope) who treats some shots as his own sprawling canvas. However some of the digitally immaculate landscape shots are dotted amongst the film so infrequently they seemed to be reserved as signifiers of Turner finding inspiration, which is a shame. Sometimes it looks like a Microsoft Screensaver has popped up in the middle of a period drama. However the range of exploration from narrative patterns to digital techniques and unconventional acting styles used by Leigh is to be applauded.
Mike Leigh has created a visually rich yet honest biopic of the painter of JMW Turner. The benefits of having laboured over the script have in turn given Timothy Spall the freedom to bring a well-rounded and enigmatic character to life. This combined with Leigh’s cinematic vision make this a distinctive and thoroughly enjoyable biopic.