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Arts & Culture

'Mr. Turner' Brings Painter To Vivid Life

Timothy Spall plays 18th century landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh's new film, "Mr. Turner."
Sony Pictures Classics
Timothy Spall plays 18th century landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh's new film, "Mr. Turner."

British Director Mike Leigh Brings His Improvisational Style To Period Biography

Film Review: "Mr. Turner"
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner."

ANCHOR INTRO: Director Mike Leigh is known for fashioning scripts from a long improvisational process with his actors. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando says he puts this to good use to breathe life into Mr. Turner, a new film opening about painter J.M.W. Turner. Mr. Turner is anything but a conventional period biopic. Director Mike Leigh treats Turner like an ordinary man who just happens to be a brilliant painter. He gives us a gruff, unromanticized artist who must work every day and deal with art as a business. But Leigh also conveys with unsentimental appreciation how Turner creates his art. Light and color are as much a character here as Turner. CLIP Color is contradictory… well is it Mr. Turner. Color is absolute… but sublime and contradictory yet harmonious… Light and color become tangible as Turner smudges paint with his fingers or blows powdered colors on a damp canvas to get the right quality to his shadings. Leigh’s Mr. Turner is a breathtakingly contradictory portrait of genius made ordinary. Beth Accomando, KPBS News. TAG: Mr. Turner opens in select San Diego theaters on Friday/tomorrow.

Companion Viewing

"Lust for Life" (1956)

"Vincent and Theo" (1990)

"Topsy Turvy" (1999)

"Girl with a Pearl Earring" (2003)

Director Mike Leigh is known for fashioning scripts from a long improvisational process with his actors. He puts this to good use to breathe life into "Mr. Turner" (opening Friday at Arclight La Jolla) about innovative landscape painter J.M.W. Turner.

“Mr. Turner” is anything but a conventional period biopic. Director Mike Leigh has turned to famous artists in the past for inspiration (“Topsy Turvy” about Gilbert and Sullivan). And once again he mines historical material to deliver something so invigoratingly fresh and immediate that we forget we are watching a period film.

The first surprise of the film (if you are expecting a conventional biopic) is that Leigh treats Turner like an ordinary man who just happens to be a brilliant painter. Timothy Spall (a Leigh favorite and for good reason) plays Turner as an eccentric and sometimes unpleasant man. He speaks mostly in grunts and snarls, doesn’t show much kindness to others, and wants to do as he pleases. Leigh suggest that while Turner could express huge emotions on a canvas, he was not necessarily capable of showing emotion or sometimes even just kindness in his real life. This is an unromanticized portrait of an artist who must work every day and deal with art as a business. He doesn’t have the luxury or the inclination to play the tormented artist and sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. On a certain level, Leigh demystifies the artist much in the same way he did in “Topsy Turvy” with Gilbert and Sullivan. He shows that to survive as professional artists they had to acknowledge the commerce side of their art (which can be seen as mundane), and had to deal with the tastes and fashions of the times.

But Leigh also conveys with unsentimental appreciation how Turner creates his art. Light and color are as much a character here as Turner himself. Color becomes tangible as Turner smudges paint with his fingers, spits on his canvas, or blows powdered colors onto damp paint to get the right quality to his shadings. Not since Robert Altman’s “Vincent and Theo” (about Vincent Van Gogh) has color felt so tactile as if you could reach up to the screen and feel the texture of yellow sunlight or azure seas. Leigh shows little of Turner’s finished art on screen but instead shows us the reactions of people looking at his paintings or the landscapes that inspired him. Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope paint with light in a manner that captures on film what Turner conveyed on his canvas. And the reactions to Turner’s work range from amazement to snarky comments by the royal siblings. But the film succeeds in showing Turner’s genius and how he pushed landscape painting into a more expressionistic style.

Leigh, as an artist himself who must daily navigate the tricky terrain of creating art within an industry focused on the bottom line, offers up a variety of insights. There’s a lovely moment when Turner’s father asks a woman to try and find an elephant in a vast canvas depicting Hannibal crossing the Alps. She approaches the painting, searching unsuccessfully for the animal. “Elements dwarfing the elephants,” she is told as the creature, tiny within the painting, is pointed out. The scene suggests the attention to detail on the part of the artist as well as the realization that all his work may never be appreciated by the average consumer. Leigh also takes delight in poking fun at critics.

Leigh also presents a very vivid portrait of life in 18th century England. With a casual matter of factness he makes us well aware of how death and disease were commonplace. There are many references to the death of children. Everyone seems to have suffered that experience but there seems little time to treat it as a tragedy. As with the colors on Turner’s palate, Leigh makes the environment of 18th century England completely tangible and real.

Spall, as always, delivers a performance of subtle perfection. Turner may be a gruff, blunt man but Spall never misses an opportunity to fill in the broad strokes of this man with delicate detail. Also standing out are Leslie Manville’s delightful self-taught Scottish scientist (with a similar passion for the properties of light as Turner) and Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s long-suffering servant. Atkinson is great as her maid yawns, scratches herself, and makes other sly, silent commentary on the activities of those socially above her.

Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” (rated R for some sexual content) is a breathtakingly contradictory portrait of genius made ordinary. It’s a film as much about the quality of light and color as it is about the person of Mr. Turner and it will make you want to go and check out his paintings.