Daily | Mike Leigh’s MR. TURNER

Sight & Sound: Mr. Turner

The November 2014 issue

The entry rounding up initial critical reaction to Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner following the premiere in Cannes features the trailer and clips and so on. For the video this time around, I want to highlight three newish interviews. Now that the film’s opening on its home turf, that is, throughout the UK, we’ll also have a look at reviews in today’s papers as well as a few that have appeared during the New York and London film festivals.

Let’s start with Chris Cabin at Slant: “What lingers most strongly from Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, which focuses on famed landscapist J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) from roughly 1828 until his death in 1851, is a sound: the piggish grunt and growl that Spall readily punctuates his lines with. When the painter weeps over the young age of a prostitute he visits, or exerts himself while taking Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), his maid, from behind, these guttural expulsions build into storms of wheezing and phlegmy coughs. It’s an ugly, off-putting, but irrefutably human detail of performance in a film built on just such nuances, one that takes the inherent complexities of depicting human experience with anything resembling sincerity, empathy, or realism as its premier concern.”

“Now 71, Leigh has reached the point where he might be expected to deliver a grand, career-defining statement,” writes Danny Leigh for the Financial Times. “It may have arrived with the potent Mr. Turner, particularly if we’re bold enough to assume an identification between the director and a painter of curmudgeonly reput­ation, working around the whims of moneyed patrons and idiot critics who never did see what was so great about shipwrecks. Either way, skeptics who still have Leigh tagged as a miserabilist whose movies look like TV will be left confounded, his film taking Turner’s genius as a gauntlet and replying with its own dazzling concoctions of light.”

Also in the FT, Nigel Andrews: “We get towed into the paintings as Turner creates them. Staffa, The Fighting Temeraire, Rain, Steam and Speed. Then we’re towed out again into a life that, thanks to Dick Pope’s magisterial cinematography, glows with the vitality and raspy golden-yellow radiance of the Turner vision-world.”

It’s “unequivocally the most visually arresting film to date from Mike Leigh,” agrees Martin Tsai in the Critic’s Notebook.

Philip Kemp for Times Higher Education: “Most attempts to do cinematic justice to art and artists have slumped into well-meaning middlebrow kitsch, as typified by John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1952), where José Ferrer hobbles on his knees as Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956) or Carol Reed’s woeful The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), in which Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo dithers over painting the Sistine Chapel, much to the irritation of Rex Harrison’s Pope Julius II. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, by contrast, triumphantly takes its place among the most accomplished examples of the genre.” For more on these other artists in other films, by the way, see Michael Brooke in Sight & Sound.

For the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw, on second viewing, “it looks even more compelling: unhurried, discursive and mysterious. Spall’s performance shows an artist not encumbered with cliched bohemian torment, but one who is confident and prosperous, eccentric yet forthright, and self-assured in company. He briskly assesses the natural world for its physical properties and how these can be transformed and exploited for his purposes. This is a Turner with a good deal of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.”

Also in the Guardian, Ryan Gilbey notes that “there is no Mrs. Turner. The nearest equivalent is Mrs. Booth, a Margate landlady and widow with whom the artist found love and apparent serenity in later life. She is played by Marion Bailey, and it is no exaggeration to say that when she arrives on screen, it is as if a column of soothing sunlight has fallen upon a dank meadow. Mr. Turner is a visually arresting film from its opening shot, but it is only with her arrival that it becomes fully a warm one, too.”

“The film is studded with such gem-like supporting roles, many of which are taken by regular Leigh players, including Lesley Manville and Ruth Sheen,” adds the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin. “Picking favorites is too difficult, but let’s just say the lisping writer and patron John Ruskin, hilariously played by Joshua McGuire as an oblivious smartypants, has stwuck a chord with a few of us cwitics.”

“Mr. Leigh has given us a pitiless picture of life, a reverent picture of work, and a divine picture of art,” writes Sophie Monks Kaufman for Little White Lies.

Casey Cipriani talks with Dick Pope for Indiewire. Interviews with Leigh: Simon Grant (Tate), Nico Hines (Daily Beast), Sophie Monks Kaufman (Little White Lies) and Kate Kellaway (Observer). And with Spall: Xan Brooks (Guardian) and David Gritten (Telegraph).

Meantime, The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free is on view at Tate Britain through January 25.

Updates, 11/2: “Turner hosts historically accurate viewings of his works that are unveiled from darkness while he peers through a peephole in the wall, furtively watching his audience like the director of a play, spying upon his production from the wings,” notes Mark Kermode in the Observer. “As with Topsy-Turvy, Leigh’s most visually ambitious movie prior to Mr. Turner, this is a piece about the nature of performance. When the scene of The Fighting Temeraire is brought to life with the aid of computer graphics, the theatrical sleight of hand seems entirely organic; elsewhere, the camera zooms in on 1812’s Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps to reveal a dramatic detail of one of Hannibal’s elephants hidden amid the vastness of the Alpine skies (‘hubris!’), Leigh’s cinematic direction bridging the divide between the single frame of a painting and the unspooling action of a play. Just as the artist creates his pictures with a rampant physical fervor, so the result of his endeavors is anything but still.”

David Jenkins talks with Spall for Little White Lies. And for the Royal Academy, Annette Wickham presents a guide to who’s who in Mr. Turner.

Updates, 11/7: At the Guardian, Alex von Tunzelmann explains his grades: “Entertainment grade: C–” and “History grade: A.”

Jason Ward talks with Leigh for the Quietus.

Update, 11/12: Kristopher Tapley interviews Spall for HitFix.

Update, 11/13: The AFI interviews Leigh.

Update, 11/14: “Seeing the exhibition and the film together is like watching a strange, exhilarating conversation,” writes Jenny Uglow for the New York Review of Books. “And what a fine film it is: rich, enjoyable, imaginative, faithful to Turner’s spirit. Steering clear of familiar biopic clichés, it slides between modes like a Dickens novel, from the psychological depth of the central characters to jovial party scenes at Petworth and Punch-like caricatures of catty, competitive Royal Academicians.”

Update, 11/16: “Leigh is to talk for the first time about the impact of childhood conflict on his art and the decision by his father to send him to a child psychiatrist,” reports Vanessa Thorpe for the Observer. “Speaking to Alan Yentob in a new and unprecedentedly personal interview for BBC1’s Imagine,” Leigh “will reveal the ‘awful, terrible’ family ‘screaming matches’ that were the chief characteristic of his home life as a boy in Salford. The high level of discord, he suggests, has provided him with dramatic material ever since.”

Update, 11/17: “On behalf of John Ruskin, I would like to sue Mike Leigh for defamation of character,” writes Philip Hoare in the Guardian. “In Mr. Turner, Leigh’s astonishing and sweepingly beautiful new film, the painter’s greatest champion has been traduced. Ruskin, played by Joshua McGuire, is a simpering Blackadderish caricature of an art intellectual: a lisping, red-headed, salon fop…. This posthumous portrait is unconscionable.”

Updates, 12/9: For the New York Times, Kathryn Shattuck talks with Dick Pope and with Leigh, who says that the “look of the film had to be informed by a sense of Turner, a sense of palette and actually hit the moments that became Turner images. I felt that what I was understanding about the real world of Turner would very much lend itself to being cinematic.”

Jasper Rees looks back on Spall’s career for Intelligent Life.

Updates, 12/14:Mr. Turner as a whole is both brilliant and problematic, a storm-swell of great filmmaking where the exact object feels uncertain, like a great, necessary leap was left untaken,” writes Roderick Heath at Ferdy on Films. “Yet the result is stirring and fascinating, a fresco of ingenious detail that communes between the mud of history and the ether of personality. The sustained depth and brilliance of Spall’s performance as the pivot of Mr. Turner is a career highlight for a hugely talented actor and is surrounded by such pitch-perfect turns.”

“His Turner is both larger than life and exactly the same size,” agrees Jonathon Surgeon at Flavorwire.

Updates, 12/25: “Mr. Turner is a mighty work of critical imagination, a loving, unsentimental portrait of a rare creative soul,” writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “But even as it celebrates a glorious painter and illuminates the sources of his pictures with startling clarity and insight, the movie patiently and thoroughly demolishes more than a century’s worth of mythology about what art is and how artists work. You may have had the good fortune to study Turner’s watercolors and martial tableaus up close, to linger over his storms and placid river scenes, but somehow Mr. Leigh makes it all look newly painted, fresh and strange.”

Tim Cawkwell: “In 1990, in a formal one-to-one interview, the interviewer mused that no other filmmaker or painter had dealt with light as he had. [Stan] Brakhage’s correction is instant: ‘Turner,’ he blurts out, and goes on to talk about him ‘painting light as best he is able,’ especially in the watercolors tossed off free of commercial considerations. ‘It was in his watercolors, across his life, where he was freely doing something from which he might make an oil-painting later. Because they had no commercial value, he was free,’ and these were therefore the greatest expression of his art…. Beginnings, middles and ends were something Brakhage detested, to use a deliberately strong word. And I fear that detestation would have been Brakhage’s reaction to Leigh’s film, had he lived to see it…. Mike Leigh is resolutely a secular, post-romantic filmmaker, and as such a gulf away from Stan Brakhage who in 1990, when told that his critics described him as a Romantic, said he was proud of it, for the world was open-ended and that one thing could not be detached from another, taking the interconnectedness of the universe as romantic in its inspiration.”

Nick Pinkerton for Reverse Shot: “If you want to see a film whose palette approximates that of Turner’s canvases in their pulse-racing brilliance, their delineation and accentuation of the effects of light, I would recommend you to something shot by [Jack] CardiffConan the Destroyer, say, or Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, which has some nice maritime images. Mr. Turner, an unconventional biopic of England’s most famous landscape painter from director Mike Leigh, does not endeavor to show the world as seen by Turner, but to show Turner in the world.”

“Turner did his best to ignore the mistress who bore him two children, and to ignore the children as well,” notes Keith Phipps at the Dissolve. “He joined his father in committing his mentally ill mother to Bedlam. He took sexual advantage of his housekeeper, Hannah Danby. He often did not play well with others. The triumph of Mr. Turner is partly the way the film lets those elements of Turner’s life sink into a fuller portrait of the artist, one that neither forgives him his failings nor lets them define him, or overwhelm his accomplishments. It’s all the more remarkable for the performance at its center.”

“You wouldn’t peg Mike Leigh as someone with tremendous interest in the natural world, or much of an appetite for the ‘sublime,’ an important concept in the Romantic era in general and Turner’s paintings in particular,” writes Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir. “But if Turner saw that the thin, uncertain and often gloomy light of Britain and northern Europe had as much magic in it as the sun-swept climes of the Mediterranean, Leigh’s films about the everyday lives of ordinary British people have been built on a similar insight…. Whether this lovely, emotionally complex and deeply strange film is meant to suggest that we’ll appreciate Mike Leigh more in days to come, or to remind us that the calculus of joy and pain we inflict in our time here is impossible to compute, I am not sure. Both are true.”

“Turner’s prickliness, as embraced by Spall, is amusingly akin to Leigh’s own impatience with critical sorts and interviewers, which I will attest to personally,” adds Ray Pride at Newcity Film.

“With his incomparable Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh continues to make other directors look simpleminded,” writes New York‘s David Edelstein. “[T]he grotesque and the sublime aren’t on opposite ends of the spectrum. They blend.”

“More than any period film in years (Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood comes to mind, as does Leigh’s own Topsy Turvy) Mr. Turner seems to be taking place in something like the actual past, in a world distinctly different from our own while remaining contiguous with it,” suggests Slate‘s Dana Stevens.

“This is less your standard-issue biopic than a foray into the mystery of human feeling,” writes Stephanie Zacharek in the Voice.

“Mr. Turner understands creative people on every conceivable level,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz at, “and translates that understanding with a deftness rarely seen outside of astute documentaries about creative people.”

Mr. Turner doesn’t transform the biopic the way Mr. Turner did the canvas, but it does, in its greatest moments, capture some of the divine magnificence the man saw in the world around him,” finds A.A. Dowd at the AV Club.

For the New York Observer, David D’Arcy strolls through the the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Leigh, stopping to talk in front of the Turners.

Update, 12/26: “A singular work of portraiture, it captures the mystery of a man apart from and yet deeply at home within his inspirations,” writes Jonathan Kiefer in the SF Weekly. “An affinity for environment, and for light, suggests that Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope have appreciated Turner’s work to the point of absorption. But it’s Spall who summons the life and commands the screen.” And so, Kiefer interviews him.

Update, 12/30: Colin B. Bailey, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, for Eat Drink Films: ‘Keep your corners quiet, center your interest.’ In one sense, Turner’s advice has not been followed by Leigh, whose scenes are replete with memorable vignettes of English life of all classes. Whereas Turner’s figures—tiny, distant, incidental—occupy the peripheries of his landscapes, Leigh’s are front and center in many frames. His focus on coiffures and costumes, no less than on faces and expressions, is resolute, unflinching, and humane, as is the film’s celebration of propriety, community, and decency. English society at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution is shown to have been ruddy, healthy and clean: there is no hint of Dickensian squalor in Leigh’s recreation of Turner’s world.”

Updates, 1/11:Mr. Turner is high on my list of best art biopics ever,” writes New York Times art critic Roberta Smith. “The main reason: Turner’s selfish personality and single-minded devotion to his art is the film’s through line—its driving force—supplemented by glimpses of the collateral damage to those around him. The deep content of this movie is a trifle clichéd but vividly rendered: Genius is by definition strange and also hard work; ambition has its price; and talent can hit anyone, including the son of a barber (in Turner’s case) whose ample gifts and ability to smooth some of his rougher edges helped him fit in with aristocratic patrons who could be pretty eccentric themselves.”

“It’s a little peculiar to start off a discussion of Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner by invoking Amir Bar-Lev’s recent documentary about Penn State football, Happy Valley,” grants Gregory Scharpen at Eat Drink Films. “However, in a recent (admittedly somewhat freewheeling and wide-ranging) conversation with Bar-Lev, the notion of the ‘takeaway’ of a film came up. And he brought up Mr. Turner, a film he greatly enjoyed, noting, ‘You walk out of that movie, and you say, “I don’t even know what the movie was about.” I don’t even know if I could say… I can’t give you a “takeaway” about the movie.’ And that lack of a reductive quality isn’t necessarily bad; he continued: ‘I’m not after takeaways. I’m after characters, basically, acting true to form, because there’s something about that that feels like, in some ineffable kind of way, you’re talking about life. And there’s something edifying about that.'”

More from Shaun Brady (Philadelphia City Paper, B+) and Kelly Vance (East Bay Express). Peter Howell‘s interview with Leigh for the Toronto Star has been cited quite a bit for Leigh’s comments regarding Tarantino’s fetishistic dedication to celluloid. For Hazlitt, Calum Marsh spends an amusing half hour with Leigh. And Kyle Buchanan talks with Spall for Vulture.

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