Mike Leigh very rarely ventures into period film territory, but when he has done so he has pulled it off brilliantly - witness the dazzling Topsy-Turvy, a superb realist take on the "putting-on-a-show" musical, a film that had all the trappings of classic British period drama but none of its stale, genteel contents. The same goes for this long-gestating project on celebrated Romantic artist J. M. W. Turner, though it must be said Mr. Turner is occasionally a bit too flaccid and heavy-going than you'd expect from Mr. Leigh.
Nothing to be alarmed about, though. Mr. Turner radiates the director's patient touch and minute attention to detail and performance. His creation of an entire lived-in universe through small, incremental touches mirrors the painter's own impressionistic application of dabs and swatches of paint to create on the canvas something transcending life.
As always, Mr. Leigh simultaneously zooms into the the smaller picture while zooming out to show the larger context. At heart is the idea of a life that appears incomplete if you only look at one side of it - hence the presentation of Turner (a remarkable Timothy Spall) as not just the artist, but also as the inhabitant of imperial London, born and bred into a very rigid and specific social context he simultaneously respected and defied with his work.
The director's method is to insert apparently off-colour or off-centre touches that seem to be surplus to a linear, plot-driven narrative but are essential to build up character and contribute towards the richness of the portrait. Mr. Leigh is clearly fascinated by the contrast between the grandiose lyricism of Turner's art and the no-nonsense coarseness of his daily routines: a gruff man with little appetite for social niceties, entirely incapable of communicating his feelings outside an acceptable, rigid social framework, but whose paintings and private moments revealed a sensitive mind.
Turner compartmentalized without necessarily being consciously aware of the inherent contradiction that the director points out and that Mr. Spall so brilliantly embodies. His Turner is a man who lives an otherwise unremarkable life, placed in his social and historical context with Mr. Leigh's usual care for detail, DP Dick Pope's breathtaking cinematography working within the constraints of the artist's own colour palette. And though, as always, there is nary a bum note in the ensemble work from the cast (many of which are returning regulars), Mr. Turner really belongs from start to finish to Mr. Spall, in a delicately nuanced yet remarkably vital composition.
United Kingdom, France, Germany, USA 2014
Cast Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Sam Kelly
Director and screenwriter Mike Leigh; cinematographer Dick Pope (colour, widescreen); composer Gary Yershon; designer Suzie Davies; costumes Jacqueline Durran; editor Jon Gregory; producer Georgina Lowe; production companies Filmfour, Focus Features International, the British Film Institute, Xofa Productions, Thin Man Films, Untitled 13, Untitled 13 Turner Produktion and Diaphana Productions, in association with France 3 Cinéma, Amusement Park Film and Lipsync Productions
Screened December 5th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)