I'll be honest: as far as the visual arts go, I kind of hit a brick wall after cinema. Painting really isn't my forte; I'd be hard pressed to tell a Monet from a Manet and only recently expressed an interest in visiting the National Gallery because I wanted to see the bench where James Bond and Q sat and stared at a picture of "a bloody big ship" in Skyfall. So it was with some trepidation that I approached Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, only really forcing myself because it's one of the LFF's big films this year. I needn't have been concerned: Mr. Turner is an incredible film, and as far as I could tell, isn't really about painting at all. In fact it seems to have as much to say about cinema as anything else, which was the first thing I loved about it. The second was that I actually got to see the creation of the picture of the bloody big ship from Skyfall, painted as it was by Mr. Turner himself. Who knew? Everyone, apparently. Everyone but me.
The most immediately obvious thing to point out about how completely brilliant Mr. Turner is is how completely brilliant Mr. Turner is. Specifically, Timothy Spall, who plays the artist like some kind of cultured warthog, waddling about the countryside with his mouth permanently contorted into the shape of an unlucky horseshoe and his porcine jowls flapping in the wind like saddlebags. Most of the time he looks less like Turner than Hooch. I have no idea what the real Turner was like, but I hope to God he "spoke" like Spall does here: in a symphony of guttural grunts and gurgles that wordlessly express his every emotion. It would be exactly the type of performance required to keep a moron like me in their seat for 150 minutes of 19th century painter biopic, were it not for the fact that everything else in the film is easily the equal of its lead's magnetism.
Not that Mr.Turner is excessively stagey: Leigh and Spall regularly venture outdoors for some utterly breathtaking shots of the kind of landscapes that truly got Turner's juices flowing, and eventually found their way out of the ends of his brushes and onto the walls of history. But Leigh never lingers on these shots, as heartbreakingly gorgeous as they are, because why would he? His film is about the man who took those images and transformed them into something other, something imbued with emotions culled not just from those locations but from the people Turner knew and the experiences he lived. As Turner constructs his interpretation of the last days of The Fighting Temeraire, Leigh urges us to see not just the bloody big ship from Skyfall, but Turner's sorrow at his friend Haydon's desperate situation: a once-great man who worked on an enormous scale, brought low by circumstance and humbled by time.
There's a mischievous way in which Leigh depicts Turner and his contemporaries (including a delicious rivalry with John Constable) as a club; a band of brothers living a lively scene with little thought for how their work would be appreciated in the years to come. When that sphere attracts analysis, it's impossible not to see Leigh poking an amused finger up the bum of the industry he's worked in all his life. "There is no place for cynicism in the reviewing of art," declares contemporary art critic John Ruskin, which drew a certain amount of giggles at the press screening I attended; when he later spouted "I find myself marvelling at my own wealth of perception!" the room nearly collapsed into a black hole of sudden and painful self-awareness.
Mike Leigh isn't that interested in making political points from his film though; he just wants to show us an unexceptional man who just happened to be exceptional at what he did, and perhaps to get us to see the world as Turner did. Mr. Turner's Mr. Turner isn't a tortured genius, or a precocious prodigy, or even an enigma; he's just a flawed human being with a talent, like every other person in the world. But he sees romance and drama everywhere he looks, and views his surroundings with the same wonder with which people marvel at his work today. Leigh's film is a beautiful, insightful portrait of art, of artists and of people, and I loved it so much that I might actually bother to make that trip to the National Gallery. Who knows, I may even look at more than just the bench Daniel Craig sat on.