Mr Turner: Mike Leigh delivers an Oscar-worthy biopic

Posted on 17 November 2014
By George Heron
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I shamefully confess to having never watched a Mike Leigh film and only hearing of him through my favourite film critic, Mark Kermode, who usually namedrops him when he’s on the subject of great British directors like Ken Loach. I’m glad this is something I have now rectified after “perusing” the most excellent Mr Turner.

Timothy Spall becomes the pioneering artist, an equivalent rock star of his day. We encounter him in the last quarter-century of his life, his success and reputation at its peak with full respect and awe from both peers and aficionados. William Turner is a man of few words but could not be said to be unsociable with that.

The prevailing memory of Spall’s career is that of a supporting actor who plays characters that remind you of different animals like Wormtail in Harry Potter. I was very surprised to see that he wasn’t in the latest The Wind In The Willows movie. This film is no different. The way Spall grunts through the film is very pig-like, which is akin to the animal instinct that Turner displays, particularly in his treatment of women – groping and spontaneously penetrating his faithful and consenting servant Hannah at a whim.

There is a paradoxical side to Turner that juxtaposes the previous sentence’s description of misogyny: He also has a tender loving side. He falls in love with a recently widowed lady, someone who does not know of his celebrity. With her, he is much more affectionate, Leigh ensuring a balanced account is made of the man. He also had a very close, loving relationship with his father who lived with him and helped him prepare for painting sessions to the detriment of his own health.

Leigh’s first venture into digital filming has produced stunning results appropriate for a tribute to one of art’s innovators. His go-to cinematographer Dick Pope frames images of startling clarity and detail. It is easy to see how Turner was so inspired especially by the deceptive mundanity of the calm of the sea and the setting of the sun.

A refreshing change to the norm is the complete lack of handholding for a film that is aiming for maximum historical accuracy. There are no text pop-ups telling you where Turner is or what year we are in. The events occur in chronological order, without any flashbacks, following in great detail the creative indulgences of the artist and his private life.

Talk is rife of Oscars for this masterpiece and one could not possibly begrudge it for both actor and director. The two and a half hours fly by and fully immerse you in the nineteenth century it so meticulously depicts.

Mr Turner is now showing in Liverpool at Picturehouse at FACT. For more information visit the following link: