Mike Leigh has always been a perfectly sound visualist, a sterling and occasionally stoic bard who let his characters do the talking, but whose films breathed the life of simple human activity more harmoniously than arguably any living director. But never before has his style been so in tune with the substance of his work. His films by and large are social realist works of character and social milieu, and Mr. Turner retains this noble essence, but it remains his most non-naturalist film. Which couldn’t be more fitting for what is obviously a work about the shuddering shadows and brimming light rays of early 19th century painting as much as it is a grounded study of a man who felt so much for that art he sacrificed everything else in his life. It isn’t a given yet – Mr. Turner is still young in the world and will need time to mill about and settle still – but if it isn’t Leigh’s best film, it is his most fascinating, and of all his films, it has the most to whisper to us about cinema.
At some level, Mr. Turner is simply a short-hand to arrive at the beauty of Leigh allowing cinematographer Dick Pope loose in a playground of early 19th century painting, and even if not one image of the film had anything meaningful to imply about Leigh’s narrative or characters, nothing can take away from its sheer beauty. Mr. Turner is arguably the most, well, painterly work of cinematic storytelling of the 2010s thus far. There’s a husky dimness to the cinematography that moves well beyond realism without ever sacrificing or denying the fundamentally grounded naturalism of the piece, and Leigh’s latitudinal framing takes cues from Terrence Malick to dwarf painter J.M.W. Turner with the landscapes and mindsets he called home.
It is only natural to set a man who was so obsessed with landscape painting in front of those landscapes, but the quiet marvel of Mr. Turner is the way in which Leigh and Pope use only the cinematography to imply, if not outright state, their central figure’s ailing hubris and the harshly elegiac, even nostalgic way he found comfort in nature as a means to escape from his domestic life. Shadows and lighting that dance between dusky impressionism and eye-level realism define not only a man, but an era that was tied into a mystique and watery eye equally in love with, and paternalizing toward, nature. Mr. Turner is the study of an era personified in a man, who was in turn encapsulated through the prison of his art.
And who is that man? As explored by Timothy Spall, in tandem with Pope and Leigh, Turner is a cipher for a generation, an art, and the human experience, both an idea and a slovenly brutal, ailing human being. As a man, he’s troubled to say the least. But to say the best, he’s a harshly poetic soul whose personal failures both inform and are constructed by his quietly weeping, distraught, wonderfully majestic view of a natural Earth he welcomes more regularly than any human interaction. He’s a failure as a social being, but a man with a tortured vision, and Spall finds the harmony between empty, deadened man and artist brimming-with-life. His paintings, almost mythical interpretations of nature that breathe off into the distance beyond the Romantic canvas and treat nature like a storybook vision of human hopes and dreams, are his necessary burden, his curse, and arguably his only savior.
Which is the wonderful thing about Mr. Turner, and arguably the singular essence of what may be Leigh’s greatest film thus far. While his other works are and remain impeccable, literate, violently well composed tales of human misery that never slip into easy nihilism or miserabilism, none of them utilize their filmicness, their nature as cinema, to tell those tales and define those characters as well as Mr. Turner does. All of his films maintain a rigorous combination of parched, austere dryness and romantic sympathy that makes a Mike Leigh film a Mike Leigh film, but none showcase Leigh as a singular filmic voice quite like Mr. Turner. Leigh has always been one of the many modern writer-directors for whom the pen was their primary vehicle, and the camera a mere follower, but this is the first Leigh film where he allows his mind’s eye for visuals to freely tell the tale, and to let his pen follow in perfect harmony.
An essence that frees up this film to move beyond his usually singular, stripped-down focus on humans and to approach, instead, a study of humanity as it exists through the prism of art, how we define ourselves and our worldviews through the shifting lens of human aspiration and desire. The film is about, essentially, a burly, snorting, difficult, cantankerous slob of a man who never quite fit in, but who nonetheless found great success channeling his beautiful, challenging outsider’s view of the world into his art. But, in the way it contrasts its painterly landscapes with its stodgy, densely-packed interiors, it is also about a world that trapped people, turned them to a supposed civilization that was often more interested in enforcing stubborn rules than freeing up human expression.
And it is about the way the beautiful expression that did breathe forth from that world was conditioned on the fact that the humans in that world couldn’t have that freedom outside of art in the first place. Mankind, Leigh laments, can only dream about art the way that J.M.W. Turner dreamt about art if that dream, if that view of nature as more than simply a backdrop to corporate materialism, is denied to them. As Mr. Turner shows, humans are freed up to dream of beauty only because they don’t know the soothing salve of such beauty in their docile everyday life.
It may be that the dour Leigh sees a little of himself in Turner, which is probably why the film feels so warm and humanist even in its deliberate coldness that stays just on the right side of the “clinical” line. Leigh has always been a difficult, unsympathetic director, but everyone of his films is driven by a great, undying empathy he has for the world, and a humble view of the beauty of everyday people who are, in their own way, capable of great things. J.M.W Turner may be more famous than any of Leigh’s other subjects, and Leigh spares the figure none of his difficulties. But he is, in the end, a Mike Leigh character, another of his many social outcasts who nonetheless found purpose and beauty in their outlaw ingenuity. Mr. Turner is Leigh’s ode from outsider to outsider, his personal vernacular for ingenuity and catastrophe as they exist at odds, but in tandem.