Master filmmaker Mike Leigh presents a biopic of master filmmaker J.M.W Turner, and it is, without question, a masterpiece.
Timothy Spall plays the Great British painter in a full body performance that won him the Best Actor prize in Cannes this year, and will hopefully win him a Bafta next year. Spall plays the role hunched over and grunting, noshing on food like a warthog and humping his maid like a pig. Yet his brutish qualities are unapparent in his artwork, which is mesmerising and increasingly wild as the artist becomes more impressionistic.
The film manages to transport the viewer into one of Turner’s works, bathing scenes in the golden divine light he so often painted, and framing scenes to show the landscape as a wide canvas.
Leigh keeps his production in the family, from the actors he knows and trusts from previous films – Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville (Another Year), Marion Bailey (Vera Drake), Timothy Spall (Secrets and Lies) and Paul Jesson and Dorothy Aktinson (All or Nothing), to his regular cinematographer Dick Pope and reliable composer Gary Yershon (both Happy-Go-Lucky).
With an award-winning team behind him, Leigh shows that he can put his hand to anything, and deliver a film that shows his mark as a director, but also stays faithful to the life and works of Turner. It’s the attention to detail that makes this work one of Leigh’s best. Rarely are we treated to a period drama that so accurately portrays 19th century life, from the costumes and characters to the sets, houses and mealtimes.
Turner’s painting style is particularly interesting to observe, as he scoops watered down acrylics into his hands and then wipes them across the canvas with a cloth. As his style changes with the death of his father, Turner stabs the paint onto his works with a stiff brush, and uses all kinds of unconventional “paints” – cream, egg yolk, jelly and chocolate to enhance his work. Other paints are bought in powder form by weight from the local shop, an activity that defines Turner as a wealthy and respected artist for being able to buy such a luxury item.
Mr Turner is a staggeringly beautiful film to behold, but is also a career-defining film for Spall and Leigh. Forget The Imitation Game, Mr Turner is the best British film of the year.
Mr Turner will be released in UK cinemas on Oct 31st.