Intricate, detailed and subtle Mike Leigh’s cinematic portrait of Turner’s last twenty-five years is the most exciting British release of the year. And there’s still time to catch it on the big screen.

In the final act of Mike Leigh’s biopic Mr. Turner, the British artist visits a photographer. He surveys the camera with skepticism. After probing the gentleman on the workings of his machine, who informs him that ‘colour is a mystery,’ Turner (Timothy Spall) disparagingly wishes ‘long may it remain so’. On viewing the cinematography from Dick Pope (Porterhouse Blue, The Illusionist), Turner might well change his mind. Leigh’s film is saturated with art. And not just Turner’s, but the vast body of work from the painter’s contemporaries Constable, Hayden and Stanfield. The attention to detail in replicating these works is immense, but it’s Dick Pope’s original cinematography that is most striking art of all.
Mr Turner Timothy Spall

Mr Turner opens on a dusky pink sky, a smokey blue river and a windmill in the silhouette of a warm yellow sun. It could be a Turner landscape: the lighting and the framing of the shot are just right. But gradually this painting comes to life. First, the lyrical, poetic bubbling of conversation becomes audible. Two ladies come steadily into view. Then the camera begins to pan. There’s a man on the horizon and he’s sketching. Turner himself becomes part of a new, beautiful piece of cinematic art.

“Impressive visual storytelling”

Pope’s evocative photography is not limited to this opening scene. He frequently tricks our eyes into thinking they’re looking at a static landscape, before revealing life. It’s a subtle reflection of Turner’s own approach – the artist painted an elephant into the horizon of his famous alpine scene for such an effect, one of the many facts Leigh’s film references without ever being condescending. Pope zooms out from mountains to show Turner wandering amongst the rocky outcrops and gives us seas frothing against white cliffs and moody skies. His methods are different to Turner’s, but Pope does justice to his muse.

Leigh too engages in impressive visual storytelling. When Turner’s father begins a downward spiral of illness, Leigh looks down on the artist from the top of a spiral staircase. And when Turner himself becomes ill, Leigh positions the camera above him, as if viewed by his God. Every scene is bursting with detail. Margate’s eighteenth century seafront is impressively re-imagined and Turner’s studio is a cornucopia of artistic paraphernalia. Mr. Turner deserves a barrage of technical awards.
Mr Turner

The attention to detail from production designer Suzie Davies and set decorator Charlotte Watts is worthy of Turner’s artistic rival Constable, who’s ferocious perfectionism is captured at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. Here Leigh conjures artistic rivalry that provides Mr. Turner with much of its comic edge. Eccentrics and oddballs furnish the gallery with their final touches, made as their paintings already hang on the walls. ‘He’s been here and fired a gun,’ yells the distraught Constable, after Turner paints a bright red mark on his own, increasingly impressionist painting. Neither do critics come off well. Joshua McGuire, as the pompous Ruskin, steals a particularly amusing scene debating art during a stifled afternoon tea. It’s a clever move on the part of Leigh to highlight this pretentious, competitive side to the art world, reflecting a reputation that continues to permeate the scene today.

In Mr. Turner Leigh achieves a peculiar tone that effectively combines both this witty, comedic banter and emotional gravitas. It’s a style that does justice to the eccentric characters of the eighteenth century arts scene and yet subtly reflects the experimental nature of Turner’s later work as well.

“Timothy Spall delivers unparalleled emotion”

In tracing the last twenty-five years of Turner’s life, Leigh explores a period of time when the painter’s work became increasingly radical. His treatment by the press and contemporary popular culture is explored delicately by Leigh who sets up the reactionary nature of society in an early, and amusing, high society sing-along where the salacious tune ‘pretty kitty the maid of the mill’ causes widespread disapproval. Later, Turner’s reaction to a theatrical gag about the foolish, gullible nature of his buyers is full of pain, made excruciating by Spall’s restrained performance.

Spall delivers unparalleled emotion through slight movements of the eyes, meticulous body language and a vast language of grunts and grumbles. It’s not surprising he has already taken home Cannes’ Palme D’Or best actor prize. Leigh provides him with a dexterous screenplay to work with. Turner’s attitude and behaviour is the sum of both eccentricities and a problematic upbringing that is explored but never fully explained. Why Turner keeps his children a secret and has a complicated relationship with women (including a selfish affair with his housekeeper) remains enticingly out of reach.
Mr Turner Timothy Spall

Meanwhile, Leigh’s courage in giving us brief asides that add little to the plot – a discussion about slavery, a confession about lost friends – make Mr. Turner one of the most shrewdly written screenplay’s we’ve seen all year, providing not only the film’s greatest insights, but adding immensely to the depth of Leigh’s characters. A duet of Purcell’s Lost Love is bursting with grief, but entirely free from explanatory constraint, leaving audiences to fill in the gaps.

‘Loneliness and solitude are not the same,’ says Turner. It’s a shrewd piece of dialogue in a film where many of the character’s experience their own particular kind of isolation. Turner’s housekeeper is commendably given her own complex story-arc and this attention to the film’s peripheral characters, operating in the shadow of Turner, makes Leigh’s film an unmissable one.

As Mr. Turner draws towards its conclusion, Turner views the art of the Pre-Raphaelites with mixed emotion. The explosive dynamic between the radical and the reactionary forms the backdrop to Leigh’s film, but at its heart is the very human desire to express life as we see it. Mr. Turner ultimately explores, through an acutely personal lens of grief, the heartbreaking reality that generations pass away and, in doing so, the world as we know it is destined for change.

VERDICT: ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ 5/5


Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 150 minutes
Images: © 2014 – Sony Pictures Classics
UK Release Date: 31 October 12014