‘Mr. Turner’ bears his artistic soul

Filmmaker offers an appreciation of an artist much like himself

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Marion Bailey as Sophia Booth and Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in “Mr. Turner”

In the current world of British cinema, there is likely no greater practitioner of the art form than Mike Leigh. Over the years, he has fine-tuned a signature improvisational process that now serves as a stylistic imprint; deciding upon a story idea, corralling a crew of collaborators (already intimately familiar with his process), setting up character and narrative workshops – which allow the performers to begin to live in the realm and skin of the characters – and then using the cameras to observe the interactions that unfold. This is the spirit of jazz at work, except the scale is unfathomably larger and more complex. I would liken it to a trio or quartet of musicians with years logged together to the extent that they have that magical intuitive rapport those outside the music simply can’t grasp. But instead of three or four players, we’re talking about a small orchestra enjoying the same kind of mind-melding. It is a working hive mentality that must have a creative force at the center of it all.

And that would be Mike Leigh.

His credited works seem to slip under the mainstream radar – “High Hopes” (1988), “Life is Sweet” (1990), “Naked” (1993), “Secrets & Lies” (1996), Vera Drake” (2004), “Happy-Go-Lucky” (2008) – but he has been recognized by the Academy, earning seven nominations (directing and writing for “Secrets & Lies,” writing for “Topsy-Turvy,” directing and writing again for “Vera Drake,” and then twice more for writing – “Happy-Go-Lucky” and “Another Year”). He’s never won a gold statue and many question if, especially in the writing category, he is not given enough credit for commanding this unique process. Will it take years, decades (likely after he is gone) for us to grant him the recognition he deserves?

It would seem Leigh is in some ways like J.M.W Turner (Timothy Spall), the artistic protagonist at the heart of his latest film “Mr. Turner.” The painter enjoyed celebrated status within the insular art world of England during the early-to-mid 1800s, known for his watercolor landscapes that held equal footing alongside the more historic paintings that were in fashion at the time.

What Leigh shines a light on though is the more prickly, eccentric aspects of the man later on. Turner exploited the affections of his long-time housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) and spent years denying the extent of the relationship he has with Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), while also the possibility that her two daughters were his offspring. In addition he took up with Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), the widowed owner of a seaside resort he routinely visited prior to the death of Mr. Booth (Karl Johnson). But the most meaningful personal dynamic that impacted Turner was his relationship with his father William (Paul Jesson) who lived with him for 30 years and served as his studio assistant.

For all of these questionable character traits, Leigh and Spall (a veteran performer in the Leigh drama fold) maintain a keen and steady eye on what made Turner tick – painting. Their portrait never strays from the art and craft constantly driving this mercurial man. Everything Turner sees and hears finds its way onto the canvas, all of his personal experiences lend themselves to the shadings and bursts of color.

The romantic in me wants to believe this painterly approach mimics Leigh’s creative process with each player and their input in the improvisational environment serving as an element in Leigh’s color palette or a brush at his disposal. There is no judgment from Leigh, as to Turner’s behavior, and that would seem to be in keeping with Leigh, a figure in the film community born long before the airing of personality through social media. The only thing that matters is the work. Check out “Mr. Turner” now and get ahead of the rush to judgment on Leigh’s greatness as a master of his craft.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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