(Mike Leigh, 2014)
Director of photography Dick Pope's attempts to paint with light - an obvious nod to the subject of this sprawling biopic - make Mr. Turner easily Mike Leigh's most beautiful film. For a director most obviously acclaimed for his studies of modern British life, class and morals, it is telling that I find his period dramas effortlessly superior to his films on contemporary themes. Part of that is his approach to setting and texture; Leigh's historical dramas are visceral and earthy, keeping his characters front and centre, never distracted by the costumes or locations many examples of this particular genre obsess over. The caricatures which litter his work also fit better into this period world where class seems so much more starkly demarcated than in the complex landscape of modern Britain, where some of Leigh's characters are impossibly stagey, self-indulgent creations, walking embodiments of the flaws in his improvisation-and-rehearsal-to-create-a-script approach. There is still some of that in Mr. Turner, to be sure; a particular weakness for a funny voice or a gurning facial expression is a real Leigh signature, his fallback when he needs a laugh.
It's even there in Timothy Spall's fine lead performance - his Turner grunts more than he speaks, often to great comic effect. A telling character detail, yes; but also a decision made by an actor that does not always work.
Mr. Turner elliptically, messily chronicles the last quarter century of the artists life; already an illustrious and controversial master, he is increasingly eccentric, pursuing his art and his passions with little regard for anything else. He has several complex relationships with women; (barely) endures the death of his father, meets with patrons, friends and rivals, and paints, paints, paints, using food and spit to achieve the effects he needs.
This is a dense film, full of detail and characters and complicated inter-relationships and mysterious ambiguities, and though it sprawls in several directions, it always feels controlled and even concise; Leigh knows what he wants to show us of Turner, his visionary genius allied with his difficult personality, his charm with his sentimentality (it does feel a little autobiographical at times). The ellipses largely help the film avoid traditional biopic problems - it is rarely predictable. It feels like life, a life lived by a genius, a full, singular life. Spall is crucial here, letting us see the fleet, quick mind of this man trapped inside the "gargoyle" he sees in the mirror, together with his at-times overwhelming emotional intensity, and the supporting cast are mostly terrific too.
A lovely score by Gary Yershon helps illuminate something of Turner's melancholy and obsession, but it is only fair to return to the work of Pope. This is a film about a man obsessed with light, and Pope and Leigh seem to have understood that light is central to not only Turner, but cinema. Their film makes that case eloquently enough.