The Art of Noises
For the past few weeks now, I have been observing that we seem to have been in receipt of a selection of movies that one might reasonably expect to have been held back for the traditional awards season - serious, quality stuff, with big names both in front of and behind the camera. I think we may as well declare Awards Season to have opened this year, because the parade of high-class worthies shows no sign of stopping, and I would be very surprised if none of them scored any gongs at all.
Already having picked up a couple of prixes francais, latest on the scene is Mike Leigh's Mr Turner. Mike Leigh is, and I'm aware I'm probably about to generalise reprehensibly, best known as a sort of social historian of middle- and working-class Britain (if he ever remakes Interstellar, it will probably consist entirely of people arguing about crop rotation), but he is not averse to doing the odd period picture either: Topsy-Turvy, about Gilbert and Sullivan, was a notable success about fifteen years ago, and he has dipped into similar territory for Mr Turner.
Tom Cruise's favourite actor from Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Timothy Spall, plays John Mallard William Turner, the noted landscape artist of the early 19th century. Exactly when the film begins is a little unclear, but Turner has already become a noted artist.
I should point out that, of course, Mr Turner appears to have been made in accordance with the dictates of Mike Leigh's Renowned Near-Mystical Semi-Improvisatory Method, in which Leigh and his actors basically just sit around and... well, I don't know, actually, he must swear them all to secrecy or something. Anyway the point about the RNMSIM is that it inevitably results in an overwhelming focus on character and the minutiae of performance, and films which are not exactly powerhouses of gripping plot.
And so the film opens with a very long shot - in every sense of the word - of a windmill at sunrise (or possibly sunset, who can tell), in front of which two slightly Pythonesque Dutch ladies walk past fairly slowly. The camera pans with them to reveal, in slightly less long shot, Turner making a sketch of the windmill. Cut to pre-Victorian London (economically but convincingly realised) and Turner's homecoming. There are protracted greetings between Turner and his father (Paul Jesson), and the household maid Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), who has a skin condition, though clearly not to the point that it discourages Turner from taking the employer-domestic relationship into some fairly surprising areas.
Someone goes out and buys some paint. Turner wanders about and sketches things. His former mistress and unacknowledged children and grandchildren turn up and are given fairly short shrift. There are high-flown debates about art at the Royal Academy. Turner goes on holiday in Margate. So it goes, so it goes: the storyline of the film gradually develops, to be sure, but in a very low-key and inconspicuous way.
This is certainly a film which either drags its feet a bit or provides excellent value for money, depending on your point of view. It weighs in at a lengthy 129 minutes and is it absolutely true that every single moment of it is essential to the film's thesis? I can't help but think not.
Then again, it did occur to me as I was watching it that treating this as a conventional plot-driven film might be doing it a disservice: perhaps it is more a discursive piece, to be enjoyed and savoured in a more reflective way, making the most of the subtleties of performance, composition, costuming and so on. Well, maybe: there is certainly a lot to appreciate here, once you get your head around the somewhat languid pace and odd style.
On the other hand, for a film about a great artist, Mr Turner is only tangentially concerned with Mr Turner actually doing any painting. Perhaps this is the point and the aim of the film is to explore the flawed character of this astonishingly gifted human being. Well, that's as may be, but the fact remains that quite a large proportion of this film consists of Timothy Spall grunting.
No, that's not fair: in addition to grunting, he snorts, snuffles, croaks, groans, growls, rumbles, sniffs, and chokes a lot too. There are quite long scenes in which other characters exchange long pieces of dialogue, punctuated by the camera cutting to Turner watching them and going 'Hrrrnnnnkk,' or something similar, in the back of his throat. Spall finds a great deal of variation in these different vocalisations, of course: the ones he makes when hearing some ill-advised art criticism are quite different from the sounds he emits when disporting himself with the maid. (Perhaps Leigh's next project should be a radical biography of Monica Seles, also starring Spall.)
Turner describes himself as a 'gargoyle' in the film and Spall himself seems to be taking 'pugnacious' as the starting-point for his performance. There is a lot of pop-eyed cantankerousness as things go on, especially as Turner's style of art goes somewhat out of fashion and he begins to find the role of the artist somewhat supplanted by that of the photographer, but there are also moments of tenderness and the occasional insight into what drove Turner as an artist. It is undoubtedly Spall's film as an actor: technically his performance is brilliant, even if Turner comes across as a bit of a Dickensian grotesque.
On the other hand, Dick Pope's cinematography is also very striking, as you might expect in a film largely about visual spectacle and art. The film has a richness and texture that is really impressive, and at times a grandeur somewhat at odds with the nondescript nature of many of the scenes.
Does it manage to say anything particularly profound about either Turner himself or the life of an artist in general? No, not really, I think: the closest Leigh manages is to suggest that Turner's brilliance as an artist was offset by his being fairly callous to most of those who loved him, especially Hannah the maid, whom he effectively dumps in favour of his common-law wife. Is this sort of thing justified if you're so talented? Personally I would have thought not, but the film remains remarkably non-judgemental.
Mr Turner has racked up five-star reviews by the dozen, but even if I indulged in such things I couldn't do the same. But I am aware that this may largely be because I have a different sensibility to Mike Leigh and his RNMSIM. Mr Turner is superbly acted and photographed throughout, and has clearly been directed and edited with a great deal of skill. It's an extremely accomplished film. It's just a bit too slow and mannered for my tastes.