Why is it that the film industry has never really able to make a decent biopic of an artist? With a few disputable exceptions (a friend, for example, suggested Jarman’s ‘Caravaggio’ as a pretty great effort), they have mostly been middle of the road or worse. Before watching Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’ this week, I would have said it seemed almost impossible for film to really ‘get’ how to portray art due to the inherently different way cinema has developed as an art form. Cinema as a popular medium sets itself against what it perceives as the elite who enjoy fine art, and yet also can’t help but idolise the artists themselves, which it always portrays in almost divine terms as geniuses without real human emotions that have nothing to do with their art.
The greatest move of Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’ is its complete breaking down of this film industry failure. Together with Timothy Spall, the actor who plays J.M.W. Turner himself, they have created a character whose genius is almost incidental. Leigh and Spall’s Turner is a real 3 dimensional person, an often corpulent figure who shits and spits, the latter literally going into the work to create some of his masterpieces, as can be seen in this clip from the film’s marvelous sequence in the Royal Academy
Spall in this film is a one man acting-masterclass, able to communicate more about Turner in a grunt than Charlton Heston managed in his entire role as Michelangelo in ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’. The way Spall moves from laughter to tears when watching his father die is just a pleasure to watch. In fact, as is a staple of all of Leigh’s film, there is not a single acting misstep here, from Turner’s psoriasis-ridden housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) harbouring feelings for Turner, and who looks uncannily like a early 19th Century version of a Cindy Sherman photograph, to a Joshua McGuire’s cruel take on critic John Ruskin.
In fact, the brief trio of scenes featuring Ruskin are central to this film’s critique of the art biopic as a genre, with Ruskin’s pretentious, ill-informed art critique in the film, memorably shut down by Spall asking him what his favourite kind of pie is, showing the inherent flaws of other art films and period dramas in which all the characters speak in this strange way. The film’s few critics have focused on these performances as caricatures, and they can stray into that territory, but even at their most outlandish they still have excellent points to make. In fact, they are as much caricatures as Beverly in Leigh’s famous TV work ‘Abigail’s Party’, but it works because these are caricatures that real people can become when they assume heightened roles in the presence of others – from Beverly as hostess in Abigail to Ruskin as art critic in this film.
The cinematography is also excellent, with some incredible work done filming real life Turner-esque landscapes which don’t detract from the clearly incredibly detailed research done to recreate the period not in a twee Victorian ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ period drama way but in a real psychological way as is best seen in the film’s one sex scene which is about as far from Darcy in the lake in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as its possible to go.
All in all then, a fantastic British film that is well worth a watch before the release in the next few weeks of the two big Oscar-gobbling biopics ‘The Imitation Game’ and ‘The Theory of Everything’, and perhaps actually far better than either of them.
Have you been turned on to ‘Mr Turner’? Let us know in the comments