It’s a well-established and generally accepted modicum of truth, just in the same way the world accepts the fact that the world is round, that Mike Leigh don’t make bad films. The man who has given us masterful observations of modern British life in all its various ryhthms and prisms, with an astounding filmography ranging from Life is Sweet, Naked, Topy-Turvy, Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake to Happy-Go-Lucky, is a filmmaker that’s impossible to fault. His last film, the beautifully nuanced masterwork Another Year, is so pitch-perfect that we’d all began wondering how the hell is he going to top such a flawless piece of cinema. Now he follows that with Mr Turner, a biographical drama of one of the greatest Impressionist painters the world ever saw, mining the personal life of J.M.W. Turner through Leigh’s signature snapshot-of-a-life along with all its vicissitudes, quotidian and humdrum details. It’s an admirable work, particularly in its defiance in conceding to traditional biopic tropes, and rather fleshes out langourously the myriad eccentricities and domestic dysfunctions of an artists and man who have landscape paintings an important name.
And what compositions – major credit goes to Dick Pope’s impossibly gorgeous landscape panoramas, often resembling Turner’s eye-watering vistas of seascapes, marshlands, cloudy skies and pastoral hills that punctuate the quiet drama that broil within the frame, achieving some level of beauty that Turner himself would instantly approve with barely a grunt. It’s certainly not an exaggeration to claim that you could freeze-frame one of the film’s painterly compositions, hang it above your mantlepiece and gain the respect of your art-school, paintbrush-brandishing friends. The cinematography, consisting of a series of slow pans and long takes that reminds of Alexander Sokurov, is immaculate.
While it’s all looking wondrous and lovely, halfway through Mr Turner‘s runtime, you’d begin to feel the longueurs of this man’s slow decline to nihilism, depression, detachment and eventually death. For a two-and-a-half hour film, Leigh packs twenty five years of the artist’s life, and while many scenes are imbued with warmth and artful perception, there are a few scenes that meander along the way. While Lesley Manville’s appearance as the natural philosopher Mary Somerville is delightful, her characters ends up being inconsequential. The same can said to Turner’s repeated visits to Margate, where he develops an affair with kindly landlady Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), elongating moments where they can be trimmed of fat and padding. The film’s final furlong, where Turner suffers the blow of his father’s death and the failing of his own health, whilst sad to watch, moves into conventional territory. An artist realising the vagaries of time and his impending morality isn’t something novel in cinema, but Leigh takes his mournful time to try and get this point across. These gripes are ultimately obliterated by Timothy Spall, whose loud grunts, guttural voice and perpetual scowl mask an inner turmoil, elevating the man beyond caricature as the public lampoons him, finding notes of humanity beneath this lumpen mass of a brute.