I've tried hard to think of the exact moment that Mr. Turner, the new film from the critically adored Mike Leigh, reached out and grabbed me. It's something that can't be pinpointed - you just suddenly realise that you're so absorbed in the film that nothing outside of it matters. It seems unusual that this would be the case with a film as slow-moving, deliberate and ponderous as Mr. Turner, but it is a film made with such confidence and flair that it truly is among the director's greatest works so far.
At face value, Mr. Turner is a biopic and a period piece, but rather than simply settling for re-telling the life of esteemed 19th Century painter J. M. W. Turner, the film is far more complex, with layers of social commentary and biting humour. Rather than the plasticised and idealised tendencies of Hollywood biopics, Leigh's screenplay - covering only the last twenty-five years of the painter's life - direction and casting make the film a surprisingly gritty and artful one.
The film essentially lacks a traditional "plot," but instead it is episodic in structure. However, that is not to say that as a piece of cinema it lacks direction. Every shot, every piece of dialogue, every seemingly throwaway piece of scenery adds up to a brilliant emotional climax. At two-and-a-half hours long, it asks some patience of the viewer, but Mr. Turner is a profoundly rewarding experience, from the superb period details of the mise en scène, down to the very subtle complexities of the dialogue and performances. By looking at the final chapter in Turner's life, we see a world in a state of flux and Turner as one of the casualties of progress.
That may sound heady and complex, but what the superb cast do best with the film is fill it with genuine and effortless humour. Like the best of Mike Leigh's work, Mr. Turner features a perfect balance of humour and pathos. The social commentary of the film is very reminiscent of great British writers and social commentators, particularly the likes of Jane Austen or Lawrence Sterne. Many scenes are played with a slight sense of absurdity, to the point where even a conversation about the correct climate in which to grow gooseberries is riddled with incisive commentary. The film comments on Turner's place as an artist in a social sphere that values his work less and less, and replaces him with new technology like photographs - commentary that remains relevant with the always morphing capabilities of technology.
Leigh could have cast a traditionally handsome man in the titular role, but instead he placed the role in the trustworthy hands of his frequent collaborator Timothy Spall. It's no surprise that Spall was awarded the Best Actor award at Cannes. Often communicating with little more than grunts and sighs, Spall imbues a man that is outwardly a vulgar grouch with a real sense of humanity. His soulful and powerful performance is perfect because of its subtlety and restraint. The rest of the cast is similarly superb, particularly Marion Bailey (also one of Leigh's favourites) as Sophia Booth, Turner's devoted mistress, who is one of the most genuine and three-dimensional of the parade of finely drawn characters that come and go throughout the film.
Mr. Turner not only succeeds in terms of scripting and pacing, but the cinematography by Dick Pope, another frequent Leigh collaborator. Pope's rich and natural-looking images complement the film's events perfectly. They straddle a line between the social and the personal, alternately hanging back in long, unbroken takes, or cutting to deeply probing close-ups, enhancing the emotional charge of the film. The natural, often eye-level images work excellently with make-up and costuming that aims for absolute realism, with many actors wearing minimal make-up and dressed in costumes that are so real that their rough textures can almost be felt. There is a fierce and profound poetry in the harsh, unfiltered faces and bodies that appear throughout this film.
The music, arranged largely for strings, is another fascinating aspect to the film, and heightens its sense of artistry and confidence significantly. Composer Gary Yershon has created something that illuminates the film every time it appears, without distracting from it. The melodies are unusual, somewhat angular, but at the same time soft. Just like the paintings of J. M. W. Turner, which nearly always featured shipwrecks as their subjects, the music carries portents of looming disaster and sadness, but it is diffused with an ethereal and crepuscular sense of light and space, not unlike the character of Turner himself.
That Mike Leigh and his cast and crew have made something so tight out of something that could have been an unwieldy mess is close to a miracle. Mr. Turner is testament to the director's unrelenting talent and good taste, as well as his boldness. It's not likely to be a film for everyone's taste - it will be too slow and its narrative too oblique for many - but it is the kind of film to get lost in if you are willing. It is that rare thing that is capable of making two-and-a-half hours seem like less than half that time, and a film that begs you to return to it again and again.
Mr. Turner opens in cinemas in Australia and New Zealand on Boxing Day.