As Mike Leigh’s majestic new movie Mr. Turner begins, the famous British artist J. M. W. Turner’s father buys pigments for his son in a dusty London shop. The vast psychedelic arrays of glass jars filled with powders of viridian, chrome, cobalt, barium and ultramarine seem as magical as Diagon Alley in Harry Potter or the Cheese Shop in Monty Python. The pure pleasure of this visual moment is a happy indication that Mike Leigh intends to luxuriate in the beauty of 19th Century England as joyously as he did in Topsy-Turvy, his previous biographical epic, and for Mike Leigh fans this is very good news.
It’s a telling fact that as I settled in to watch a movie starring the great actor Timothy Spall as the influential British painter J. M. W. Turner, the artist I was mostly thinking about was Mike Leigh. He is one of my favorite living film directors, but he mostly turns out sensitive modest-budget films about regular people in contemporary settings (I wrote about one of these, Happy Go Lucky, last year). He is known for a low-key natural style, but when he delves into grand history (as he did in Topsy-Turvy, in which Gilbert and Sullivan debut The Mikado at the Savoy) he spares no expense on sets, costumes and period detail. I can think of no other historical film director who achieves such a convincing sensation of realism. When Mr. Turner strolls the riverfront at Margate, we can practically feel the refreshing spray on our cheeks.
But even when Mike Leigh delves into British history it’s his emotional intensity that is really epic, and every Mike Leigh film will eventually (after much charming misdirection and improvisation) offer a clash and a resolution. Mr. Turner’s affective axis turns on the gruff artist’s impulsive and secretive love life. He cruelly manipulates and ignores several women, but eventually manages to find his home in a quiet arrangement with a sea salt’s widow, played by Marion Bailey.
Like W. S. Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy, it’s clear that the dyspeptic J. M. W. Turner craves the companionship of a loving woman, though he never manages to come to terms with the moral implications of a caring relationship. Turner the celebrity artist is far more confident with his adoring public than with any of the odd human beings he is forced to interact with, and it’s impossible not to imagine that Mike Leigh must be painting a portrait of himself with this vision of a stumbling famous artist who lives for his visionary work, while somehow barely managing to survive his everyday life.
Mr. Turner features performances by several regulars in the Mike Leigh acting troupe, like Martin Savage, whose failed-artist character unfortunately doesn’t have the dimensionality of his unforgettable George Grossmith in Topsy-Turvy, and Dorothy Atkinson, who played Jessie Bond in Topsy-Turvy and here nearly steals the show as a sickly and silent housekeeper who allows Turner to molest her whenever the impulse strikes. Timothy Spall is also a longtime member of the Mike Leigh troupe (though many film viewers will only recognize him as Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter), and when he paints by violently stabbing his canvas with a thick brush in Mr. Turner he recalls the dumb London punk he played decades ago in Leigh’s Life Is Sweet.
These fine actors appear here as tiny objects in a gigantic world: gorgeous skyscapes and mountain surfaces, railway apparitions, marine infinities. Mike Leigh the cinematic painter is certainly competing with J. M. W. Turner the oil painter in Mr. Turner, and since we’re on Mike Leigh’s home field he very nearly wins the battle.
I came to this film with no special interest in J. M. W. Turner’s art. Like most people today, I am more familiar with the French Impressionists than their British predecessors, and I also find Turner’s blues, grays, browns and yellows a difficult palette to love. (I learned in my post-viewing research that Turner’s paintings were made with inferior crimsons that have badly faded, which may be why many modern art lovers like myself have trouble feeling as rapturous about Turner’s paintings as did critics of his era like John Ruskin, who is portrayed in this film as an eager fanboy with a hilarious upper-class English drawl.)
Turner’s paintings have faded, but Mike Leigh’s film will certainly give his legacy new life. It occurred to me last year as I wrote about the American director Richard Linklater’s remarkable Boyhood that Richard Linklater may be the closest thing the USA has to the genius of Mike Leigh, and I thought about Boyhood again as I watched Mr. Turner. Linklater and Leigh have a special quality in common: neither director is afraid to present a simply happy film.
Like Boyhood, Mr. Turner is a happy film not because it ignores tragedy and cruelty and pathos, but because it incorporates them into a stunning grand vision of redemption and love in an uncaring natural world.