Tahlia McKinnon went to see Mike Leigh’s newest masterpiece and was transfixed by the ‘sublime’ spectacle.
Mike Leigh is a man of method. An intense dedication to his distinct neorealist approach results in scripts that rely heavily on improvisation and narratives that demand authentic, committed and emotionally charged performances from his actors. His eyes are attuned to a gritty, unspoilt aesthetic, while his characters are intricate manifestations of genuine human behaviour and psychology. A visionary, a revolutionary and completely consumed by his craft, he is regarded as one of the best British filmmakers of our time. For this reason, Leigh has a lot in common with the eponymous anti-hero of his new film, Mr Turner; both men are governed by their inherent artistic instinct.
With this biopic, Leigh drifts from the art world and instead thrusts us abruptly into the life of Britain’s celebrated landscape painter, who astonishingly, remains an enigma for the duration of the film. Passive spectatorship is completely impossible as Leigh shrouds us with obscurities; Turner, a blank canvas, so to speak, and open to interpretation. However, it quickly becomes painstakingly clear that this story is not a case of ‘art imitates life’. Turner’s bolshie, obstinate behaviour, dishevelled demeanour and thick working class accent deviates dramatically from the beauty and purity he achieves with a flick of his paintbrush. In fact, masterpieces like ‘The Slave Ship’ and ‘Snow Storm’ almost seem to symbolise the wreckage and turmoil residing within him. Timothy Spall gives a ground-breaking performance as the volatile lead; a simmering pot waiting to boil over.
Shooting on digital for the first time, aesthetically Leigh’s film is sublime, rich in pastel colours, warm hues and vast, awe-inspiring landscapes. Yet Turner is almost lost within the surroundings, drowning underneath the watercolour gloss, his stout and grubby body always out of place. While he continues to grumble and grunt his way through life, it feels that Turner is frustrated by his modest education; he has so much to comment on, so much to say about the world, but does not possess the intellect or eccentricity to verbalise his musings. Therefore, his torment turns to talent, as he attacks and spits on his canvas, desperate to impart his vision.
Turner is complex; either completely devoid of emotion or completely overcome by it. And while he may be a misogynist, a letch and absent father, I can’t help but think that he is also simply lost, unappreciated and misunderstood – not only as a person, as his art was mocked and shunned by his society in equal measure. While Leigh insists that he does not want his Turner to fall victim to a Freudian espionage, his psychological instability naturally becomes the main foundation for the narrative.
Leigh’s other characters are equally intriguing. The women of Turner’s life compromise his closest relationships and in turn, the rest of the story – Ruth Sheen’s scorned ex-mistress is a stark contrast to Marion Bailey’s warm and wistful Mrs Booth, his final companion. Leigh also suggests that the film’s haunting final scene is of great significance, with Turner’s insipid, lovesick housekeeper Hannah Danby sobbing outside of the frame, mourning his death.
Of course, the main incentive to see this film is if you’re a fan of Leigh and/or Turner’s work, both of which are in complete correlation; unrefined, yet majestic, beautiful and prominent. However, even if you’re completely impartial I implore you to give this slow-paced spectacle a chance. Watching any of Leigh’s films, you can literally taste the copious amounts of effort, labour and love he pours into his work. If not for anything else, invest yourself in Mr Turner to watch a delectable cast in action and witness a truly magnificent example of British cinema unfold.