MR. TURNER (Mike Leigh, Britain, 2014, 8)
Mike Leigh has been known for decades now as a great director of actors (perhaps the best in contemporary cinema) and as a depictor of working-class life — as a visual stylist, not so much. But MR. TURNER is his first film that you can truthfully say is worth looking at regardless of what’s happening, filled with lovely shots that deservedly won cinematographer Dick Pope a jury award at Cannes. The opening shot sets the stage by moving from peasants walking beside a sunset and happening to cross (unknown to them) an artist, the titular J.M.W. Turner, painting the scene. Over and over again, we see shots of rooms with windows in the rear, to let the sun stream in and sometimes we see the same composition but with a fireplace playing the sun’s role. The death of Turner’s father, for example, is conspicuously lit only with a couple of onscreen candles and we see their effects. There’s also beautifully-lit idylls, iconographic ones, of boating down the Thames, of the White Cliffs of Dover. A theory of art history even works its way in as Turner thinks photography may have made him obsolete and so his work becomes less representational. But at the same time, dramatically, there’s an exact and exacting depiction of what ordinary and material life of the 1830s was like and differed from the 2010s — things like artistic debtors, modes of courtship, etc. I’d be curious what the Heidegger who wrote about “A Pair of Shoes” would make of MR TURNER. Leigh and Pope have pushed a self-consciously painterly style into a kind of period realism that, a couple of exceptions aside, cinema resists because, in order to look natural, photography requires an unnatural light that only modernity has. But the sun is arguably the star of MR TURNER, the biopic of a man whose last words were “the sun is God.”
One easy, natural thing to do, indeed I’ve already done it to an extent, is to identify an offscreen auteur with an onscreen artist, Leigh with Turner in this case. But I would hesitate to go too far. While the cinematography can evoke a “painterly” style, the film could not follow the trajectory of Turner’s career as it moves on. Not while remaining a commercially releasable motion picture anyway. Such a strategy would require mimicking Turner’s later shifts into abstraction and proto-impressionism.
Equally easy it is to compare a film like this to the auteur’s previous “artist biography” film, TOPSY TURVY here. I think TOPSY TURVY the better film, though I resisted it for years for reasons not worth rehearsing here (suffice to say I liked TURNER better on first viewing than I did the Gilbert and Sullivan pic). And I think the earlier film’s greatness highlights TURNER’s only real weakness. There is nothing like the staging of THE MIKADO to give the second half of MR TURNER shape and pull-through, once the “world-building” of the first hour is over. Even when they’re as episodic as this one though, Leigh films usually build the episodes into an explosion — look at the climactic quarrels in ALL OR NOTHING, LIFE IS SWEET, SECRETS AND LIES and HAPPY GO LUCKY for example. Here … no. The conventions of the Life Of The Artist biopic, which were circumscribed earlier by THE MIKADO, take over the structure and MR TURNER just continues until Turner dies (um … spoiler for a film about a man born in the 1770s).
Oh … I forget … this is a Mike Leigh film, so the acting will be superb in every respect … but one or two. Spall is of course great … [grunt]. It’s an easy performance to mock or parody I’ve gathered. But one measure of its greatness is that Spall must give 20 different grunts that mean 20 different things in context, all of them perfectly clear. That number is obviously an imprecise guess but it realio trulio is not hyperbole; Spall is that good a grunter. And it’s not played for laughs; it’s just the communications mode for a man of few words. The “but” caveat applies here too of course — mistress Ruth Sheen comes across as a right cow, regardless of her character’s legitimate grievance against Turner. And the critic is too foppish and dilletantish to take seriously. The right temperature to grow “goozberries”? Really, Michael? How can a critical favorite like Leigh dislike critics as he seems to — see TOPSY TURVY also here.
Oh … I forget … this is a Mike Leigh film, so “irrelevant” set pieces (often involving one of his stock company in a one-scene role) will be superb in every respect as well. Miss Summerville’s magnet experiment, the thumbprint method of criticism, the Purcell duet, “The Maid of the Hill” — I’ve provided Skandie-friendly Best Scene titles, no thanks needed. Until late January.
INHERENT VICE (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014, 2)
This film is a mess. And I’m not a maid.