MIKE Leigh’s magnificent, gorgeous and engrossing new film, Mr Turner, has been a long time coming. At the end of the last century, Leigh made his first foray into Victorian times with Topsy-Turvy, a film about the theatrical duo Gilbert and Sullivan. Around the same time, he says, it occurred to him that the era’s greatest painter, JMW Turner, might make an interesting subject.
And, 15 years later, so it has proved. “I started with a vague notion,” Leigh says, “and once I began looking into the character of Turner, I became struck by the tension between the character of this eccentric, complex guy and his remarkable, sublime work.”
Timothy Spall’s best actor award at Cannes for his lead role has brought Oscar talk, and well it might. His Turner is a magnificent creation, a marriage of opposites: commanding and confident before the canvas; awkward in public speaking; charming and effusive towards one lover, tortured and neglectful towards his abandoned mistress and the daughters he barely recognises; a visitor to brothels, where he cries; a tramper of hills and dales; an artistic searcher who spits on his canvas; a penny pincher who, rather than cash in, bequeaths his works to the nation.
“The thing is, you can’t get to know him ” says Leigh, on a visit to Dublin for the film’s preview. “While there are certain consistencies in the descriptions, there are also contradictions, and those are built into the character we’ve got.”
Audiences used to Leigh’s sometimes more televisual films might be surprised by the visual richness of Mr Turner.
It is an immersive experience: full of seas and skies, meticulous period interiors and lived-in costumes. Clearly, Leigh, together with his cinematographer Dick Pope, feels no intimidation putting his film forward as a work to match the visual mastery of its subject.
“No, we embraced it. That’s what the film is about. Dick Pope is a great cinematographer with whom I’ve worked since 1990 and because it took us so long to get the money to make the damn film — well over a decade — we were forever discussing it and looking at stuff and working up to doing it.
“Far from being worried that anyone should see the film in terms of the paintings, that was the whole object. And hopefully the film is informed by a strong sense of Turner, the spirit of Turner: the palette, the colours, the tone, atmosphere, light.”
That money, when it did come, was a relatively paltry £8.4m. After seeing the film, that figure looks vanishingly small. And the film itself becomes a minor miracle. Digital technology certainly helped. It was Leigh’s first full-length foray into that medium. “That’s a great new set of tools,” he says. “It was a constant revelation where we could go with it, certainly. But I think it’s not just the technology. it’s the fact that we’ve got such a brilliant production designer and costume designer and make-up designer and all that stuff. And also we were very thorough in our research, constantly.”
That thorough research is not solely the director’s burden for a Leigh picture: his actors are given great responsibility through a by-now famous approach to filmmaking. Each project starts out with a set of roughly-drawn characters and no script. Actors sign up for months of rehearsals towards a series of improvised scenes, which eventually form the basis of the film.
Marion Bailey, who plays Mrs Booth, the twice-widowed common-law wife at whose home Turner died, describes pottering around, in character, in a rudimentary guesthouse set (Mrs Booth was a Margate landlady) as she created her character from a combination of scant historical facts and her own research.
“There is a lot of trust placed in the actors,” she says. “Because we’d go to him and say, we’ve discovered this, or no, this would not have happened.”
Bailey, who is Leigh’s partner, was also in Dublin for the film’s preview. “I briefly became an expert in 19th century Margate,” she says, describing how she based her character’s accent on recordings found at the British Museum. “I came across these letters by a guy name Viney who had lived next door to Mrs Booth and Turner when he was a little boy. He’d gone to Australia in the Bendigo Gold Rush and in middle age he wrote these letters about his Margate childhood.
“Probably that was the most valuable stuff I got hold of: the food they ate, the festivals, local characters, that filled in the background for me. You’ve got to have something to talk about in these improvisations.”
Bailey’s character forms the warm heart of the film, the audience’s way beyond Turner’s often gruff, awkward exterior. Leigh is open to the conjecture that other filmmakers might have neglected this aspect of Turner’s life, but to him, it is central.
“All the different women are women that actually existed,” he says. “He did go to brothels, he did have this intellectually stimulating relationship with [Scottish polymath] Mary Somerville, he did have a totally dysfunctional relationship with his ex-mistress and the mother of his daughters.
“He had this woman who was his housekeeper for over 40 years and who was devoted to him, and he did wind up with this landlady. It’s how I view the world: men and women and relationships and all that. And for me it was a kind of wonderful, ripe opportunity to have a field day exploring those things, and making female characters.”
While the creation of palpable female characters is one thing, whenever a director makes a film about another artist, the charge of self-portraiture is sure to follow.
“It never really occurred to me, not until we’d made the film and people started saying it,” he says.
Yet, when the conversation turns to Turner the maker of art, it’s not hard to spot the fellow feeling. Leigh is visibly enthused when describing what he wanted to show about the painter’s life. Spall took lessons in painting for the role and is repeatedly shown at work, often furiously, at a canvas.
“I looked at a lot of films about painters, and what you don’t see very much is the down and dirty business of doing it. There’s no point in being poncey about it. It’s about work, making something, the industrial process, buying the paints and mixing them up and all that. He did famously spit on the canvas, throw brown powder on it.”
So, perhaps not quite a self-portait, but a portrait of the artist as Leigh would also like to be seen. “It is true, in this film, and in Topsy-Turvy, that what I’ve done is turn the camera around on what we do, we who make art.”
One of the best testaments to Leigh’s method of assembling actors for months of character development and improvisation before anything close to a script emerges. Alison Steadman and Jim Broadbent give vivid performances as a striving couple living in a shabby London suburb with their twin 22-year-old daughters.
Natalie, played by Claire Skinner, is a tomboyish plumber’s mate; her sister Nicola hides from the world behind a tangle of hair, cigarettes and an eating disorder. Typically for Leigh, the frame moves outward to include family friends, with Timothy Spall appearing as a feckless restaurant owner. But the true drama remains with the family foursome, as Nicola’s fragile state leads to an eruption of sundering emotion, soon followed by a tender reconciliation.
Leigh’s bleakest film is sustained by a searing performance from David Thewlis. He plays Johnny, an angry young man to end all angry young men. Bitter, eloquent, witty and well-read, Johnny spills his invective Mancunian-twanged barrages to a series of characters met in the London night.
Any danger of us overly sympathising with Johnny is avoided in the film’s first scene: we find him raping a woman in an alley. He flees to London to save his hide, but when he gets there shows little concern for his safety, careering through the city’s less-fashionable parts towards an unhappy end.
A Palme d’Or at Cannes made this something of a breakthrough for Leigh. Again, the domestic drama is lifted by brilliant performances that come via the Leigh school of deep rehearsal, research and improvisation. Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Hortense, an adopted black women who decides to seek her biological mother now that her adoptive parents are dead.
To her surprise, that mother turns out to be Cynthia, a white factory worker played by Brenda Blethyn. Cynthia has her problems: a jittery wreck, she drinks too much, can’t enjoy life, is estranged from her brother (played by Timothy Spall) and distant from her sister. Leigh’s film eschews the obvious clash-of-cultures approach, and instead makes it a clash of individuals.
Imelda Staunton got the role of a lifetime in this film, which Leigh tellingly dedicated to his parents, a doctor and a midwife. Staunton plays Drake, a cheerful, hardworking, dedicated mother and wife. She is the glue and the engine of her postwar working-class family, a woman with the proverbial “heart of gold”, as her husband’s friend has it (the film is full of lines like this).
Her compassion extends to helping neighbours, her sick mother and even a homeless stranger she invites in off the street. Vera also “helps young girls out”, inducing miscarriages for unwanted pregnancies. When one of those girls has complications and has to go to hospital, the police intervene and Vera’s world falls apart.
Leigh. the old master, revisits familiar terrain here, with another ensemble of characters comprised of a central family and their friends. The sad thing about the film is its suggestion that friendship has its limits, that the drift into middle-age is a drifting apart.
Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play Tom and Gerri, a couple who have made it to middle-aged, middle-class contentment and comfort. They have their home cooking, their allotment, their stock-brick London house. They have friends who have not made it, who never will. Can we blame Tom and Gerri for losing patience with them? Can we blame them for distancing themselves? Or should we see them as a not-all-that-admirable smug couple? There are no clear answers in a disarmingly complex film.