Eye on the storm

Mike Leigh is in top form in this fas­ci­nat­ing pic­ture about JMW Turner and the Vic­to­rian world he lived in, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - THE TICKET REVIEWS -

MRTURNER Di­rected by Mike Leigh. Star­ring Ti­mothy Spall, Dorothy Atkin­son, Mar­ion Bai­ley, Paul Jes­son, Roger Ash­ton-Grif­fiths. 12A cert, limited re­lease, 149 min There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through Mike Leigh’s ex­tra­or­di­nary study of JMW Turner when the painter, who is cur­rently tak­ing a lunge to­wards the ex­per­i­men­tal, finds him­self ex­cluded from the es­tab­lish­ment’s in­ner cir­cle. Queen Vic­to­ria her­self has turned up a nose at his quasi-ab­stract land­scapes. Nice pic­tures of dogs and horses are now the rage. There seems lit­tle else left to him but quiet de­cline in gen­teel Mar­gate.

It’s not re­ally worth try­ing to dig up par­al­lels be­tween Leigh and Turner. Whereas the painter fell out of favour after dra­mat­i­cally chang­ing tracks, Leigh has spent four decades be­ing lauded for mak­ing films in very much the same style.

Like Topsy-Turvy, his study of Gil­bert and Sul­li­van, Mr Turner moves away from Leigh’s usual con­tem­po­rary bour­geois con­cerns to tackle Vic­to­rian cul­ture, but as ever the pic­ture was de­vel­oped us­ing his well-honed im­pro­visatory style. This is still recog­nis­ably the work of the man who made Bleak Mo­ments dur­ing the Heath ad­min­is­tra­tion. Far from suf­fer­ing crit­i­cal de­cline, he is now an or­na­ment of his gen­er­a­tion.

Mind you, there is some­thing of Leigh’s stub­born­ness in Ti­mothy Spall’s por­trayal of John Turner. Not a man to suf­fer fools gladly, the Cock­ney ge­nius bumps his way about London and the ter­ri­to­ries with the swag­ger of a man con­fi­dent in his ge­nius.

Spall pushes the per­for­mance fur­ther and makes a divine farm an­i­mal of the painter. He com­mu­ni­cates in grunts, snuf­fles and damp ex­ha­la­tions. At times, one imag­ines a Dick­ens character that, drawn in ex­tremes on the page, shouldn’t make sense on stage or screen. Yet here he is: one of cin­ema’s broad­est, odd­est artis­tic masters. Few other direc­tors would dare at­tempt some­thing so down­right strange. Not many could pull it off.

The film joins Turner in mid­dle age. Al­ready fa­mous, he is set on de­vel­op­ing new tech­niques – ty­ing him­self to a ship’s mast dur­ing a storm – and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing fresh tech­nolo­gies: pho­tog­ra­phy, the rail­ways. In­ter­est­ingly, Leigh’s film rather takes Turner’s ge­nius for granted. There is rel­a­tively lit­tle here about how he painted and not much about the im­por­tance of in­di­vid­ual works. Leigh and Spall are more in­ter­ested in play­ing with this semi-imag­i­nary character they have cre­ated.

This Turner is a man weighed down by flaws. Though touch­ingly close to his fa­ther, he seems in­ca­pable of treat­ing women in a hu­mane fash­ion. This is where Mr Turner runs into prob­lems. There is no rea­son not to make a film about a misog­y­nist, but if so com­mit­ted, you would be as well to paint the fe­males in his life with in­ter­est­ing colours.

Turner is seen to be sex­u­ally in­volved with three women. His es­tranged wife (Ruth Sheen) is a shrew. The maid (Dorothy Atkin­son) with whom he ca­vorts is prac­ti­cally a halfwit. The woman he set­tles down with (Mar­ion Bai­ley) is an ami­able character with a nar­row worldview.

One hardly won­ders that he has such a low view of the other gen­der. The ap­pear­ance of Les­ley Manville as pi­o­neer­ing Scot­tish sci­ence writer Mary Somerville feels like an ef­fort to pa­per over those cracks.

That quib­ble aside, Mr Turner stands proud as one of Leigh’s great­est films. Freed from the con­tem­po­rary sub­urbs, he al­lows Dick Pope’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy to ac­knowl­edge the images in Turner’s paint­ings with­out ever slip­ping into cheap im­per­son­ation.

Gary Yer­shon’s an­gu­lar or­ches­tral score – like those sin­gu­lar pic­tures – man­ages to be both lyri­cal and mildly avant-garde. In pass­ing, the film of­fers a sly com­ment on the shift from gritty Ge­or­gian sen­si­bil­i­ties to the more hoity-toity stan­dards of the early Vic­to­rian era.

“There is no place for cyn­i­cism in the re­view­ing of art,” a par­tic­u­larly pompous ver­sion of John Ruskin says in the film. Quite right. Thus chas­tened, we curl up reser­va­tions and rec­om­mend Mr Turner heartily.

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