Mike Leigh's directorial style has always been characterized by his work with actors. The improvisational flourish of the interactions between the characters in his films is a marvel to behold, and one that has often led to stunning, naturalistic, unforgettable performances from so many of them. Who can forget Imelda Staunton's Vera Drake, Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky or Lesley Manville in Another Year, just to name a few of the more recent ones. Leigh has shown a propensity for genius with actresses in particular, but here he elicits an astonishingly brave, unsentimental tour de force from veteran character actor Timothy Spall to easily rival any of those past performances.
Spall plays 19th century painter JMW Turner, one of England's most famous artists. Turner lived in a cold, damp and ugly time, but the beauty he observed and tried to capture in his work led to some of the world's most treasured paintings, still observed for public viewing, as he bequeathed his work to the British government upon his death. Turner sacrificed everything for his art- personal relationships and the treatment of other people were of no importance to the man, as is carefully observed in this film, which is a slow burn, yet filled with breathtaking detail across every frame. Rarely does a period piece evoke the time in which it was set so specifically- it seems by design that one can see all the trappings of how harsh life could be in 1800's England, yet the costumes, production design and intensely gorgeous cinematography (the very best I've seen this year) reproduce the time as it may well have existed in Turner's paintings.
As absorbing as the film is, the challenge is to embrace Spall's characterization of Turner himself- the man as portrayed in this film is a wheezing, sickly, snorting, grunting, utterly repulsive individual, and Spall goes full on with the unappealing physical mannerisms of the performance. The intention is clearly to contrast the lack of beauty in the man himself with what he was able to wring forth from the world around him, and the movie is a ringing success depending on how much you're able to take in. For me, the film is so stirring and beautiful that I could mostly get past the uninviting nature of Turner and marvel at the world around him, but it takes some getting used to, especially as you're unable to hear much of his dialogue in the face of all that grunting and snorting (he comes across almost literally as a squealing pig). You can't help but admire Spall though for going all in with it- it's undoubtedly the best performance of his career.
As with most Leigh films, the cast is made up of sensational character actors in support of Spall, including Marion Bailey as the wise-to-it-all innkeeper he falls for, and the sickly and suffering Dorothy Atkinson as his maid, whom he treats as his sexual property when not ignoring her entirely. Both women, along with several of the various fellow painters and patrons he comes in contact with give the film a vibrant sense of overflowing life around the edges- this is a fully realized world we feel we're inhabiting. With a masterly sense of control and perfectly paced rhythm, both with actors and with atmosphere, Mike Leigh seems to have reached the pinnacle of his career as a director with Mr. Turner. I hope the Academy is paying attention.
* * * 1/2