Greetings again from the darkness. Director Mike Leigh is one of the least celebrated expert filmmakers working today. It’s a shame more people aren’t familiar with his films, and it’s also a shame that his latest, a fantastic biopic of artist J.M.W. Turner, probably won’t generate much mainstream appeal.
The spectacle begins with Timothy Spall’s performance as Joseph Mallord William Turner, an artist known for his use of light and color in seascapes and landscapes. Turner communicates in three ways, sometimes blending all three for quite a unique sequence: 1. Artwork 2. Verbal eloquence 3, Guttural grunts. We get to know Turner and his unusual methods of conversation in environments such as: the high society gatherings of the London art scene, at home with his aging father and uber-loyal housekeeper, and at the inspirational seaside community of Margate.
Director Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope brilliantly use color, light and texture in an artistic and atmospheric manner to complement the style of Turner the painter. Rather than run through a catalog of Turner’s most famous paintings, the time is spent showing us his method for inspiration and his frequent sketching to capture a potential sight for later work.
This is a most unsympathetic presentation of a creative man. Turner’s commitment to hard work and diligence with his art often rubs wrong those who most admire him, including the mother of his two children and those who make the art world thrive. One of the most glaring examples is his treatment of 19th century art critic John Ruskin (Josh McGuire) who dares favorably compare Turner’s work to other artists.
Mr. Leigh brings back many of his usual and familiar acting troupe including Ruth Sheen as Turner’s angry and boisterous ex, Paul Jesson as Turner’s dad (Turner really was an SOB – son of a barber), Dorothy Atkinson as the heart-breaking housekeeper (who ironically also adds a dash of humor), and Leslie Manville as Mary Somerville – the scientist who shared Turner’s fascination with light and color. Of special note is Marion Bailey who brings extraordinary and welcome energy and warmth to her role of Sophia Booth, who dredges up an inkling of intimacy from Turner.
Timothy Spall’s performance is reason enough to watch the film a second time. He physically and emotionally embodies the being of Turner in a manner never before seen on screen. From his thunderous footsteps (reminiscent of Robocop) to his pained and telling facial gestures to the aforementioned grunts and groans, Spall delivers one of the most interesting and captivating performances of the year. If you are a Mike Leigh fan, you will surely be quick to see this one. If you are unfamiliar with his work, this is one worth seeking out.
watch the trailer: