Mr Turner is that rarest of things, a resounding art house success. Judging by the ‘bums on seats ratio’ at my local Cineworld, Mike Leigh has succeeded beyond all reasonable expectation with this biopic of the great artist, Joseph Mallard Turner. It’s a difficult movie, one that obeys few of the rules you’d expect to find in a recent cinematic success – there are no car chases, superheroes or heads exploding in slow motion. But it’s also a richly rewarding experience and one that takes its own sweet time to convey its central message – that great artists exist outside of everyday conventions. For the first time since Topsy Turvy (his impressive biopic of Gilbert and Sullivan), Leigh has eschewed the contemporary ‘talking heads’ routine that is his trademark, to give us a historical piece where he’s employed the canny use of CGI to convey the intrinsic moods of some of the artist’s best-known work.
In the title role, Timothy Spall is simply quite extraordinary. He gives us a grunting, gurning turnip of a hero, a (probably autistic) painter who is hopeless at small talk and who treats the other people who drift into his world as little more than contemptible. We witness his deplorable relationship with Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), the niece of the woman who bore him two (unacknowledged) children but, nevertheless, a subject of brutal sexuality. We see his idolisation of his father, William (Paul Jesson) and his secretive relationship with Margate landlady Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey), where he finally found true happiness.
The film observes few of the accepted tropes of cinema. There’s no real story arc here, just a series of vignettes, illustrating Turner’s world, his relationships with those around him and his often stormy association with the Royal Academy. But throughout, there is stunning cinematography (by Dick Pope) that eerily recreates some of the man’s finest paintings; there’s dry humour -particularly in the scenes with Ruskin (John McGuire), which serve to accentuate Turner’s lifelong hatred of critics, and there’s the stunning scene where Turner turns down the offer of £100,000 for his complete works from a rich benefactor, insisting that he wants to bequeath his paintings to ‘the nation.’
Mike Leigh is, quite simply, an anomaly. In an age where cinema is increasingly ruled by those who seek to champion the everyday, he is, quite simply, a national treasure, a man who ploughs his own furrow and does so on his own terms. Mr Turner will either leave you cold or cut you to the marrow. I’m happy to say that I belong to the latter category.