By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist May 15, 2014 at 8:32AM
Things acclaimed British director Mike Leigh is known for: wry comedy-drama poking at ordinary lives and the class system, a compassionate yet sharp take on the human condition, his almost unique working method that involves workshopping and improvising for months with his cast before a frame of film is shot. Things Mike Leigh is not known for: lavish biographical dramas, sweeping landscapes, gorgeous photography.
But "Mr. Turner," the director's latest film, is something quite different from the filmmaker: a passion project several years in the making, examining the life of famous British artist JMW Turner. It's his biggest film in scope and budget, and seemed from a distance as if it could turn out to be his most conventional--at least if it fell into the structural traps that so many biopics do. Fortunately, it's no such thing. Instead, "Mr Turner," though not without flaws, is something of a twilight culmination of Leigh's work, and very much one in which the filmmaker turns his lens on himself, as is so often the case when directors make movies about artists.
The narrative is very episodic in nature, structured more as a series of 5-minute short stories than with a plotty throughline, beginning as Turner (Timothy Spall, probably Leigh's longest-running collaborator, and the natural choice to play a surrogate for the director) returns to London from a trip abroad to his father (Paul Jessop) and maid (Dorothy Atkinson), the latter of whom he seems to have an on-off sexual relationship with. The next two-and-a-half hours take us through the remainder of the artist's life, taking in success, failure, grief, love and the ending of an era.
Leigh's always been a master, but aesthetically speaking, this is by far his most impressive achievement: longtime DP Dick Pope's work here (Leigh's first movie shot on digital) is career-best stuff, elegiac and lovely , and evoking the spirit of the film's subject while mostly resisting the temptation to quote directly from his paintings. The result is that the film doesn't need to showcase Turner's art too often, because it's bleeding onto every frame. It's not often that you describe Leigh's work as a feast for the eyes (beyond "Topsy-Turvy," this one's closest cousin in Leigh's canon), but between the photography and the immaculately detailed, lived-in production design, that's very much the case here.
For a director who's specialized in finding poetry in the everyday, it's fitting that while the backdrops are Turner-esque, the people who fill them are more Hogarthian. No one looks like a movie star in a Mike Leigh film, and he's assembled a dream team of previous collaborators here, with stalwarts like "Another Year" duo Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville particularly standing out. But it's Spall's film, and he's remarkable in it, all snorts and snarls and grunts, hands often tensed into a kind of claw (and with a hint of the misanthropy of David Thewlis in "Naked" and Eddie Marsan in "Happy-Go-Lucky"). There's as much animal in him as man, which only makes the beauty that comes from him the more impressive.
But as much as Spall is playing Turner (and he absolutely is), he's also playing Leigh, the director using his subject as a way to examine his own career and life. When we first meet him, Turner is successful and acclaimed, very much part of the establishment, and perhaps a touch complacent in his work (depending on what you thought of his last couple of films, parallels could be drawn). But he never sits easily among the great and good (highlighted by his relationship with the avant-garde, bitter Haydon, played in a stand-out supporting turn by Martin Savage, who also shone in a cameo in "Another Year"), and his terrible grief brings out a new, more experimental side of his work that doesn't find the same kind of favor.
Or it could be that others have moved on: the ending of the film sees a great naval ship being put out for scrap, the arrival of the railroad, and Turner's first encounter with photography. He's becoming a man out of time, and the film shifts into a sort of elegy, as the landscapes that Turner made his name with are about to be forever marked by the industrial revolution. Even as Leigh himself takes on digital filmmaking for the first time, it feels as though he's saying goodbye to his own England and the artform he loved, and confronting his own mortality in the process.
Once or twice, most notably in the scenes featuring brash, entitled art critic John Ruskin (Josh McGuire), it feels more like Leigh has an axe to grind, though the scenes are admittedly highly entertaining. It's also not a fast film, and while the meditative rhythm is mostly involving, affairs start to drag towards the end. And one particular running storyline, involving the maid Hannah and her love for her employer, doesn't quite satisfy. It's in part the performance: it's so easy for actors in a Leigh film to tip into caricature, and Atkinson often feels like she's in a broader film than most. But it's also partly that Leigh doesn't quite find a way to get into the character's inner life until the very end.
Nevertheless, these are mostly minor complaints about a film that might be the director's richest, and certainly ranks with "Secrets & Lies," "Naked" and "Topsy-Turvy as one of his very best. Near the end of his life, a wealthy fountain pen magnate (Peter Wight) offers Turner a fortune to buy his life's work off him, but the artist refuses, insisting that his output should be left for the nation, for anyone to see. We hope that there's much more to come from Leigh, but "Mr. Turner" serves as a definitive summing-up and reminder of the treasure trove that his career has provided for us all. [A-]