Though writer/director Mike Leigh tends to favor small human comedies and tragedies based on people so distinctly average that they likely wouldn’t even see his movies, he occasionally steps out of his comfort zone to dabble in historical fiction. ‘Topsy-Turvy‘ is his most famous crack at that genre, and now comes a profile of beloved English painter J.M.W. Turner, which brings out both the best and worst in the filmmaker.
Focusing on the artist at middle age, Leigh picks up with Turner (Timothy Spall, who claimed the Best Actor prize at Cannes for this performance) already a success. His paintings hang in the Royal Academy, he’s financially stable, he’s respected, and his work has never been better. Yet, he’s also a mess. His primary form of communication is comprised of grunts. His closest relationship is with his father, and his relationship with women is troubling at best (rarely speaking to his mother, ignoring his offspring, “relieving” himself with his housekeeper, etc.). From there, as usual with Leigh, it’s a leisurely game of character exploration and acting challenges. The pomposity of the art world is delightfully mocked, and Turner’s skill is lovingly depicted (with Leigh often framing the locations of his famous works in beautiful tableau). Eventually, the man even finds something resembling a healthy relationship.
Where ‘Mr. Turner’ works best is where all Mike Leigh movies shine: character interaction. Working within a unique style of directing that he’s developed over decades, the filmmaker never enters a project with an established script. He casts his actors and gradually develops the film over months of workshops and improvisation. The results are always beautifully intimate, revealing and subtle. Spall is of course at the center of this one and delivers a magnificent performance initially characterized by grunts and a scowl. Gradually, Spall and Leigh reveal those ticks to be walls that Turner has created to protect himself, and a brilliant damaged man begins to emerge beneath the surface. Surrounding Spall is a living, breathing recreation of Victorian London filled with bickering artists, hilariously smarmy patrons, lost souls and warm homes. It’s the complex mixture of emotion and characterization that we’ve come to expect from the director.
However, ‘Mr. Turner’ fails in Leigh’s fascination with recreating the time period. He lingers over sets and landscapes in a way that greatly enhances the atmosphere, yet frequently grinds the film to a halt. Since the director doesn’t subscribe to anything resembling conventional narrative structure, his films are episodic by nature, and frequently those diversions can be more distracting than immersive. Thankfully, this is only a minor complaint in what is otherwise another beautiful celebration and condemnation of the hilarious tragedy of the human condition, as only Mike Leigh can show it.