François Truffaut once suggested that there’s something about England’s countryside – “The subdued way of life, the stolid routine” – that’s “anti-cinematic”. If only he’d lived to see Mike Leigh’s latest movie, which is about all of these things and yet is a film of the utmost eloquence.
Mr Turner is not concerned with the tortuous procedure of artistic creation. Nor is it a biopic of the painter-as-flamboyant genius, Caravaggio-style. It is a portrait of an unlovely man who happens to produce extraordinary paintings. Turner may have been one of our greatest landscape painters, but in Leigh’s reading he wasn’t much cop as a companion: gruff, impassive and prone to grunting where others normally speak. We see him paint, dine, reluctantly converse with patrons, and sojourn in his beloved Margate. Hardly the stuff of soaring period melodrama. Yet the film triumphs, for two reasons.
The first is Timothy Spall’s hugely sympathetic central performance. He plays Turner with great restraint, hinting at his troubled soul with an economic delivery of growls and frowns. With a curt harrumph, he can suggest relief, anger or malaise; with an involuntary shake of the wrist, he conveys a chasm of regret. In the absence of a detailed backstory or grand moments of catharsis, we hang on these gestures, for they are the only exposition we get. Spall is aided by a strong supporting cast and a witty script that incorporates period vernacular without stooping to hackneyed “prithee” and “verily” territory – but it remains his film.
The second is Dick Pope’s sumptuous cinematography. Leigh’s past films have often been visually rather static; no such charge can be levelled at Mr Turner, which takes a meticulously realised Victorian London and lustrous Turneresque landscapes, while wisely resisting the temptation to recreate the painter’s tableaux. The opening scene, which pits his small silhouetted figure against the sublime Dutch flats, says everything we need to know about this lonely man. Turner’s romantic bond with nature is one of the few certainties here. In a way, Mr Turner is an anti-biopic, for its subject is no less opaque at the end than at the outset. “I do not know you, Mr Mallard,” says a companion, employing one of his several pseudonyms. “But I believe there are things about you that I cannot understand.” This film doesn’t try to understand: it embraces the man in all his strange ambiguity, and therein lies its richness.