Cannes 2014: ‘Mr. Turner’ review

A past Palme d’Or winner and first of two British heavyweights in competition, Mike Leigh returns to Cannes with a beautifully realised portrait of one England’s greatest ever landscape artists, J.M.W. Turner – entitled simply Mr. Turner (2014). Similar to 1999’s Topsy-Turvy, Leigh is interested in the warts and all, spit and filth, rag-and-bone shop nature of the creation of art. In arguably a career-topping performance, Timothy Spall plays the cantankerous painter as a complex, grunting, snarling and utterly single-minded creature. His ex-barber father (Paul Jesson) assists him in his business and his housekeeper adores him. Turner is at the height of his fame, a celebrated and relatively wealthy man.

Turner is also a remarkably canny character who – despite his unworldliness in certain matters – has a knack of protecting his self-interests. He has a “Hail fellow well met” conviviality with his fellow academics and artists, but also a rivalry that simmers with John Constable (James Fleet) and an irritated condescension to the more traditionally unfortunate Haydon (Martin Savage). He stalks our green and pleasant land glaring at the view with a determination to glean something; visiting brothels to sketch whores and visiting Margate where he secures a room with a view of the sea and relationship with his landlady blossoms. This adds to the complications of a private life which already contains an abandoned family and a doting housekeeper who willingly submits to his attentions. More trouble lies ahead.

First there’s the tragic loss of his father and then the subsequent disillusion of his public as his work becomes increasingly abstract, anticipating modernism and causing the Queen wonder whether “Mr. Turner is losing his eyesight”. Changing fashions might see him become a ‘non-entity’ as he fears, and with the introduction of early photography, Turner senses not only his own oncoming redundancy but the death of his art form. Taking a cue from his subject, the lighting, framing and composition all make for Leigh’s most visually sumptuous film. Long-time collaborator, the cinematographer David Pope, takes a great deal of care in recreating the inspirations for well-known masterpieces. And yet Leigh is careful to avoid any preciousness. Critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) is allowed to pontificate and intellectualise himself into absurdity in a none-too subtle slap at the critical machine.

A more recognisable moment of Leigh-like social comedy comes with the entrance of his old family – Ruth Sheen delighting in the comic grotesque whilst the film, at two-and-a-half hours, unwilling to take leave of its subject matter. Ultimately, however, Leigh’s latest is not a Turner-esque landscape (though we have a panorama of those) so much as a Flemish portrait piece, which is perhaps why we begin in the Netherlands. It’s Spall who deserves the most credit, however. Every grunt has a different meaning. He’s at once both comic and tragic, a man of nature and a visionary. Occasionally, he’s an unfeeling monster, but his relationship with his father and with Mrs. Booth (a fantastic Marion Bailey) is full of warmth and affection. He’s both Caliban and Prospero in his cave. Mr. Turner is moreover a rediscovery of the English artist; down to earth, suspicious of theory, equipped with a keen eye for profitability and a direct relationship with the landscape he’s come from. Mr. Leigh has done him proud.

Mr Turner featured in CineVue’s ‘Best films of 2014’ feature. You can read the full list here.

John Bleasdale