Timothy Spall embodies Turner in a virtuosic performance of an artist in pursuit of the ethereal and elemental. By Christos Tsiolkas.

Timothy Spall a vivid J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s latest

Timothy Spall as British artist J. M. W. Turner, with Marion Bailey as Sophia Booth.
Timothy Spall as British artist J. M. W. Turner, with Marion Bailey as Sophia Booth.

Light – as it should be – is the star of Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, a film about the great 19th century English painter J. M. W. Turner. The cinematography is by Leigh’s long-time collaborator Dick Pope, and it is the play of sun on water, the warm orange of a summer’s evening twilight or the brisk blues of morning rising over a coastal village that remain most vivid after a viewing. Though Turner’s large sumptuous canvases, with their near abstract planes of light, shadow and colour, are now firmly situated within the canon of Romanticism, the framing and shooting of the film is coolly austere and classical. It is an intelligent and thoughtful choice from both Leigh and Pope: they understand that we as an audience will be steeped in Turner’s paintings, that we don’t need the film to displace our own experience of the artist’s works; instead, our attention becomes focused on the practice and discipline of the artist himself. 

As conceived by Leigh, who wrote the script, and as played by Timothy Spall, Turner is a selfish and self-centred man whose dedication to his work trumps any familial duty to his children and ex-wife. He treats his mistress and housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), shabbily. Such a conception could easily lend itself to a contemporary revisionism that would slight the man’s art as being compromised by his moral failings. It is the impudent strength of Mr. Turner that it refuses such a reckoning. 

Leigh’s oeuvre has long been identified as exemplary of the British social-realist tradition, but his films have always challenged the tropes, aesthetic and ethical, of Anglophone left-wing cinema. Questions of class and gender have been central for him since his early work in television, but I can’t recall any of his films that valorise working-class community. Rather than the ties of solidarity, what animates his films is the individual; certainly, an individual buffeted by economic and social forces, but often isolated from, and highly suspicious of, communal solutions. 

His most vivid characters occupy a space between the working class and the bourgeoisie: the brilliant misogynist of Naked, whose intellectual yearnings are anathema to both classes; the black middle-class woman in Secrets & Lies, whose prosperity arises from her fortune to not have been raised by the isolated and alienated white working-class woman who gave birth to her. 

In this new film, Turner is the child of artisans, and it is the glory of his artistic talent that has allowed him entry into the near-aristocratic milieu of the London art world. Some of the best scenes in Mr. Turner occur in the Royal Academy of Arts, where Spall manages to convey superbly the complexity of a man who is both outsider and insider in the world he finds himself. There is a glint in Turner’s eye whenever he is among these stiff, formal men. He enjoys games of one-upmanship, and he indicates by the physical excesses of his body and voice – his slouching, his sniffles, his mumbles and growls – that he takes a gleeful pleasure in undermining them. 

It is one of Leigh’s most provocative challenges as a filmmaker that he upsets our need as viewers to identify erotically with the faces and bodies we silently gaze upon on the screen. Spall is no matinee idol but in television interviews, he carries himself with a laconic down-to-earth charm that is appealing. In Mr. Turner he is costumed and made-up to accentuate his obesity. The intention must be deliberate, and it marks another point of difference between Leigh and other social-realist filmmakers. 

Ken Loach, for example, might present dramas set in blighted or destitute economic landscapes but the actors he chooses – Peter Mullan in My Name is Joe, Martin Compston in Sweet Sixteen or most recently Barry Ward in Jimmy’s Hall – embody romantic conceptions of working-class manhood. Leigh’s strategy extends to his female characters as well, and Atkinson as Hannah Danby is made-up as, and chooses to play, a woman scarified and aged by her years of domestic service. Initially, the effect can be offputting for a viewer, and the discomfort arising from our responses to the actors’ unattractive physicality can result in us dismissing the performances as mannered, as arch. But the great reward of Leigh’s choice is that it allows us to understand how social and economic class is written as much on the body as it is expressed in language. Turner’s success and selfishness are manifest in his gut and his thick jowls, and Danby’s bent body and syphilitic, pockmarked face betray her continued sexual exploitation.

Spall’s is a vivid and dedicated performance but unfortunately the script mutes the relationships that surround him so that other characters seem underwritten or mere caricatures. There are lovely moments of tenderness between the artist and his father (Paul Jesson), but once the old man dies there is a lack of shading or complexity to Turner’s other relationships. There is an early comic scene that reveals the rivalry between Turner and the great landscape painter, John Constable (James Fleet), but it is written and directed glibly and we don’t sense the history or force of their antipathy. 

I wanted to know how Turner dealt with the envies and self-doubt that plague artistic creation, how much of his taunting of Constable, the son of a wealthy merchant, arose from their differences in social standing. For the last two decades of his life, Turner was involved romantically with Sophia Booth, a widow and innkeeper, played by Marion Bailey, and the film suggests that in living with her as “Mr Booth”, Turner was able to find a peace in his personal life by deliberately obscuring his identity and fame. Bailey is pleasing and comfortable in the role but the character’s graciousness and loyalty is so pliant that the drama feels stilted. Without the tension of other performers to work against, Spall’s performance starts to seem one-note.

The one exception is in Spall’s scenes with Martin Savage, who plays the now near-forgotten artist Benjamin Haydon. He was an academic painter of allegorical and religious themes, of whom Charles Dickens wrote, “No amount of sympathy with him … ought to prevent one from saying that he most unquestionably was a very bad painter, and that his pictures could not be expected to sell or to succeed.” Debt-ridden and self-deluded, it is a character who easily lends to caricature. But Savage plays him with a bitter and self-destructive intensity, trying to beg money off Turner while at the same time seemingly unable to control his loathing. Haydon recognises that Turner’s art ushers in the eclipsing of his preoccupations and of his career, and the fierce despair of that knowledge is palatable. Spall is magnificent in their scenes together, shifting between mockery and contempt, discomfort and sympathy. The ruthlessness of the art world and, indeed, the ruthlessness of artistic endeavour and success, are revealed in their interplay. 

The narrative slightness of the film might very well be integral to Leigh’s portrayal of the artist as self-absorbed. Turner’s obsession is for light and finding the technical means to render the physics and experience of light on canvas. And it is in those moments that the film is most powerful, when we share the artist’s delight in that most elemental of substances. 

Leigh is a master artist himself and has developed a style, through both his mise-en-scène and his collaboration with actors, that effortlessly persuades us of the cultural and economic mores of the 19th century. I don’t think Leigh has lost his political passion, as evident in 2004’s Vera Drake and as is clear in what he has Turner remain oblivious to in this film. But two recent great works, Another Year and Happy-Go-Lucky, suggest that serenity is possible even in a world that enrages us. 

On his deathbed, Turner’s final words are, “The sun is God.” This vain and selfish man, through his dedication to his art, has died content. If Mike Leigh is a social realist, he’s the pagan among them.

Arts diary

• VISUAL ART  The Extreme Climate of Nicholas Folland

Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until January 26

• OPERA  La bohème on New Year’s Eve

Sydney Opera House, December 31

• MUSIC  So Frenchy So Chic in the Park

Werribee Mansion, Melbourne, January 11; St John’s College, Camperdown, Sydney, January 17

• DANCE  Force Majeure’s Nothing to Lose

Carriageworks, Sydney, January 21-25; Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, March 11-21

Last chance

• VISUAL ART  Burst Open – open source design exhibition

Artisan, Brisbane, until Wednesday

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 20, 2014 as "Light arted".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

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