Mike Leigh recently said that the “Hollywood acting” of Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and other red carpet regulars, was “not remotely interesting”. While not meaning to disrespect the stars, making clear that in their blockbuster field they could not be faulted, he marked them as “people playing themselves”, in a film fantasy world, that bears very little relation to reality. And it is reality that Leigh is most interested in: “that’s what it’s about as far as I’m concerned, it’s about real people out there in the real world, and finding your way of capturing that and distilling it onto the fictitious screen. That is the gas and the fun of it, and the meat and bones, and what turns audiences on”.
And you know what? He’s right. That is what his Mr Turner really proves. Timothy Spall does not put on the guise of Turner over his regular features – he disappears into him, he becomes him. Spall is JMW Turner. Aside from the beautifully coloured and framed shots, Leigh has created a study that does not seem to be part of the movie business at all – it feels closer to a documentary or life portrait.
Spall is completely compelling and also, in some scenes, utterly repulsive. Turner is both genius visionary and snorting, growling oaf, both passionate romantic and neglectful brute. He is the singing, artistic sweetheart of his late-life love Mrs Booth and he is also the denier of his children from a former flame and sometimes sexual exploiter of his housekeeper (this scene must be among the most awkward sex scenes of 2014, involving a heaving, grunting Turner mounting his submissive housekeeper from behind, against a bookshelf, for all of a minute, before silently shuffling away) Leigh and Spall have together exactly evoked the tension between sublime artist and grubby man at the heart of Turner.
This is a beautifully executed creation. The shots echo Turner’s paintings, with intense skies and moody seascapes. An entire existence is evoked. It is at times uncomfortable and slow, but this is all intentional – life is not smooth or Hollywood paced. In Mr Turner Leigh has certainly distilled reality with expert artistry.