If you want to see a film whose every frame is as beautifully composed as a painting, go see British Director Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner.
And if you are a lucky New Yorker, as I happened to be, you can see the film at Cinema 1,2,3, where they have just installed comfortable, cushy, wide leather recliners, where a huge screen does justice to the poetry of this particular film, and where – as in the theater — you can reserve yours seat via Fandango. All of this makes for quite a blissful movie experience.
Click here to view the embedded video.This biopic about the 19th century British landscape artist J.M.W. Turner, brilliantly embodied by a grunting, snuffling, spitting Timothy Spall (who won the award for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival), depicts a man of both artistic genius and appalling behavior towards women (with one exception). We are plunged into the last quarter century of his life when he is already an acclaimed artist, wealthy, living in a grand house with his father and housekeeper, both of whom adore him and tend to his every need and whim. He occasionally uses his housekeeper, Hannah Danby, as a vehicle for his sexual urges (like an animal in heat), rejects a previous mistress, their two daughters and a grandchild (though he seems to support them financially), and for reasons we never really understand, forms a conventionally loving relationship with a widow, Sophia Booth.
As with all Mike Leigh films, the actors inhabit their roles to a degree that is astonishing. Marion Bailey is particularly luminous as the warm, loving and unsophisticated widow who, at first, has no idea who her upstairs lodger is. Although Turner never officially leaves his studio and home in London, he eventually sets up house in Chelsea with Mrs. Booth, who takes care of him in his waning years. Dorothy Atkinson is equally brilliant as the docile, beaten down (but intelligent) housekeeper, whose somewhat misshapen figure and face grow even more distorted as she ages. It is a subtly drawn, heart-wrenching role.
On one level, the story is about an unpleasant, uncouth man devoid of empathy, physical grace or personal charm living in an era of extreme class and gender disparity and hypocrisy. In fact the entire film contrasts the artificial beauty and decorum of 19th century upper class life with the more primitive realities of lower class existence. We’ve seen this before in countless films but, somehow, Leigh brings it to life in a way I’ve never quite experienced before. The deaths of both Turner and his father, for example, are grimly portrayed.
Yet on another level, Mr. Turner is a visually gorgeous film about an artist whose solitary journeys – on sea and land — to capture the physical drama around him are quests for the essence of aesthetic pleasure.
Mike Leigh and his cinematographer, Dick Pope, are the living visual artists at work who use light and shadow as deftly as any Dutch painter. Not only are the sunsets stunning and the long shots breathtaking, but even small interior scenes and what in anyone else’s hands would be conventional street scenes are as well composed as a Still Life.
So, while we may be repelled by Turner, the man Leigh depicts, we are enraptured by Turner, the artist, and the painterly and, yes, photographic eye with which Leigh and Pope depict him.
It’s quite a hat trick, and one no serious filmgoer should miss.
Mr. Turner opened in select cities December 19, nationwide on Christmas Day, 2014.