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Portrait of a fallible character that doesn’t gloss over his selfishness - Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner

Thursday 10 November 2022, by Tia Garmonsway

Our writer Tia attended a screening of Mr Turner as part of the "In conversation with Mike Leigh" series of screenings at the Garden Cinema in London.

As I sat in plush comfort at The Garden Cinema, London, surrounded by creative intellectuals sipping wine and discussing with ardour the frequency with which they attended similar events; I couldn’t help but wonder if Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner would comprise a similarly varied cast and artistic scenery.
From the off, the guttural growls and objective distemper performed by Timothy Spall, added a full-bodied layer to the picture painted by Mike Leigh in this nineteenth century biopic of J. M. W. Turner. Thus, proving that this was indeed an artistic and well-written tapestry of the final quarter century of the artist’s life.
Mike Leigh finds a way of not only narrating a biopic through visual form, but encapsulating the flawed yet genius character that is Turner. This film evidences the relatability of a fallible character, it does not gloss over Turner’s selfishness amidst his virtuosity. Instead, it highlights the conflicting paradox of human nature and the complexity of the human condition which is contradictory at its’ core. It makes us question what it is we feel about his art, yet also about Turner.

Every scene within the film is an artistic exhibition in and of itself. Mike Leigh’s own obsession with art in his youth, is made obvious by the way he ensures the use of real artists, original artwork and true to the times costumes. As stormy scenes transition to stormy paintings and plumes of smoke evolve into clouds of tint and dye, it causes that same progression of emotion within the viewer. We experience outrage at the way in which Turner treats the women in his life, yet we are endeared by the way in which he forms a bond with Mrs Booth. We harbour dislike at the boldfaced manner in which he treats those he feels are inferior to him in the world of art, yet we also empathise with Turner when he grieves the death of his father and recollects his deranged mother.

Throughout the film it feels as though Mike Leigh wants to bring to the forefront, not only the humanity of Turner, but also what is shown in Turner’s work. It isn’t just dull figurative painting, there is a hidden profoundness in his oeuvre. You are drawn to the eccentricities of the character and what he is willing to do as an artist for the betterment of his art.

Despite the focus on Turner, Mike Leigh does not forget to incorporate very real moments in time. He does not shy away from depicting the Victorian’s outrage at a piece highlighting the atrocities of slavery. Nor the apprehension surrounding the redundancy of masters in their craft due to the industrial revolution. He even ensures we are aware of the passage of time which art itself flows through as Mr Turner laughs his derision at the Pre-Raphaelite paintings showcased towards the latter stages of his life. These very real and significant junctures inject souvenirs of history throughout the biopic, just as Gary Yershon’s compositions punctuate the film by matching the ebb and flow of Turner’s life. The nods to historical times fit well with the gradual passing of time and ultimately, death of Mr Turner.

Mr Turner is ultimately an enriching and artistic interpretation of an inspiring yet imperfect artist’s life.

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