Settling down in the cinema to watch Mike Leigh’s new acclaimed film Mr. Turner, we expect Leigh’s classic style of direction, entirely naturalistic and without visual metaphor. Yet, what we actually see no more than about one minute into the film is the strong, dark and ghostly silhouette of Mr JMW Turner cast against the gentle light of the dawn. Leigh has certainly not pulled any punches with his striking portrayal of the artist in his later life. This film is intriguing, dark, and at times uncomfortable to watch, but it’s that classic Mike Leigh stillness and subtlety that makes the film so great. With performances from a host of Mike Leigh favourites including Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville, it is hardly surprising that the story of the great artist, Turner, is here brought to life as an exquisite piece of film-making.
Focusing on the later part of Turner’s life the film explores the relationships and personal hardships Turner experienced at this time, from the loss of his father to the loving relationship he formed with Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). The huge critical acclaim Spall has received for his role as the eponymous artist is unsurprising. His physical, grunting, brooding portrayal of Turner is exquisite throughout. The way he walks using his umbrella as a walking stick and the permanent grumpy look on his face coupled with his artistic skill and undeniable believability all culminate in one of Spall’s best performances. However, I find it impossible to say whether Mr Turner surpasses his performances in the films Secrets and Lies and Pierrepoint which, to me, will always stand as pillars of acting greatness.
Paul Jesson is sublime in the role of Turner’s father; full of sensitivity and pride. His performance contributes to the most moving scene in the film which comes in the form of a dialogue between Turner and his father as his father lies dying. Leslie Manville gives a perfect and charming performance as Mary Somerville, and Joshua McGuire gives a portrayal of Ruskin which is highly entertaining and well-drawn, though still questionably unkind and mocking of the Victoria critic.
So why does this film only receive four stars? Honestly, the single reason is hard to pin point but in the context of films such as Secrets and Lies, Abigail’s Party and Another Year I feel reluctant to call Mr Turner Leigh’s greatest film, it isn’t quite there for me. But as a standalone piece this film is truly fascinating to watch. It is understated and slow but, in the end, that is what makes Leigh the great director he is- he shows us that it is what lies between the moments of extreme excitement, passion and sadness- the moments of silence in our everyday lives- that define the lives we lead.
For those of you who like Mike Leigh’s gritty realism, or are simply interested in watching a film about a great artist and seeing a truly astonishing performance from one of our greatest actors Timothy Spall, this is definitely one to see. Profound, moving and grittily beautiful.
Mr Turner (2014), directed by Mike Leigh, is released in UK cinemas by Entertainment One, certificate 12A.