When creating a docudrama, the purpose is to show the audience why it was necessary to create one instead of a straight documentary. A great docudrama will offer a unique perspective and sometimes—with elegant subtlety—the director’s personal opinion on the persons or events depicted. If the only interesting part of the film was the historical information, then the docudrama fails to argue its existence. Despite Benedict Cumberbatch’s moving performance in director Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game (2014), the film does not succeed in being a unique piece of cinema worthy of being more than a documentary. On the other hand, Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner provides a beautiful example of what a docudrama looks like when it is directed and written by a master filmmaker.
J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) was an English, romantic landscape painter famous for his use of impressionism and abstract styles later in his life. He was also infamously eccentric, which became more apparent after the death of his father, William. Mr. Turner takes place during the last quarter of Turner’s life, just as his paintings were becoming more controversial in style. The film begins before the death of Turner’s father (Paul Jesson), who Turner (Timothy Spall) lived with for the previous 30 years (Turner’s mother went to live in an insane asylum early in his life). His father, a barber by trade, now acts as a studio assistant for Turner, as well as running an in-home showroom of Turner’s work. Without knowing any history on Turner, it’s easy to mistake their impeccable chemistry for a pair of loving brothers.
What becomes apparent early on is that Turner is not an admiral person. Other than his father, the only other person living in the house is the maid, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), whom Turner exploits sexually throughout the film. The maid never seems to mind and it’s evident that she holds a strange love for Turner, which is never reciprocated (shown by Hannah trying to kiss Turner, only for him to look away—even after sex). Turner is also visited by his previous mistress (Ruth Sheen), who now looks after two daughters she claims are Turner’s. He appears completely disinterested in them, even after one of the daughters has a child and the other dies. The situation makes for some comedic moments where he openly denies having any children, something that makes you chuckle and gasp simultaneously. Although Turner’s behaviour is sometimes execrable, he is an interesting person to spend the film with, and his constant use of linguistic grunts always relieves built-up tension.
After the death of his father, Turner becomes more reclusive and frequently escapes to the seaside village of Margate to continue painting, allowing his in-home showroom to become somewhat squalid. During this time, he takes on a second mistress, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), and later assumes the pseudonym of Mr. Booth so he can live covertly with her. His reclusion only becomes more drastic by the growing distaste for his art expressed by the Royal Academy of Arts, who were more accustomed to his landscapes and portraits with more discernible subjects—as opposed to the ones focused on colour and movement.
Those familiar with the works of English director and writer Mike Leigh would not be surprised to see him making a film like Mr. Turner. Leigh is one of England’s most important directors, and he has created dramas (Naked, 1993) and comedies (Life Is Sweet, 1990) which encompass all walks of British life. Beginning as a stage director and writer, Leigh learned exactly how to get the best performances out of his cast by engaging in lengthy improvisational sessions before writing the scripts. This seems to have made him dependent on a certain pool of talented and trustworthy actors, similar to that of Wes Anderson, and after watching several of Leigh’s films you will recognize most of the cast of Mr. Turner.
One of the returning cast members is Timothy Spall, making it his sixth film with Leigh. To a Canadian audience, picturing Spall as a tour de force actor can be hard to imagine if you have only seen him play Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films. Do not be deceived though, Spall is a wonderful actor in all of his films, and his role as Turner is no exception. Every facial expression, every gesture of his hands, and every grunt is so convincing that you fully believe him to be the gruff-voiced Turner. Spall even convinces us that he is Turner in an artistic sense thanks to two years Spall spent learning how to paint. There is never a mistake about what Turner is feeling; Spall’s ability to radiate his emotions to the audience with his facial expressions is the work of a genius. In fact, the whole cast does a remarkable job of portraying subtle emotions with their faces: a testament to Leigh’s ability to bring out the best in his cast.
The excellent acting helps energize the film for those that might think it’s too long. Mr. Turner proceeds at a gentle, rhythmic pace, and it takes time to flesh out the 19th century England, as well as the surroundings that Turner ends up painting. Cinematographer Dick Pope (Leigh’s go-to cinematographer) does justice to the artistic themes in the film by not only capturing landscapes that a painter would want to paint, but specifically capturing the qualities in nature that Turner looked for, such as the properties of light. These stunning shots are used to tie events together throughout the film; for example, a shot of a sunset leading to a mention of a funeral, or a sunrise leading to new inspiration for Turner. There were even a couple of moments where two shots were so beautifully edited together that the entire audience gasped.
Spall’s ability to radiate his emotions to the audience with his facial expressions is the work of a genius.
Elevating the excellence of this film is a challenging score by composer Gary Yershon (another returning collaborator). At times, the music can be completely jarring, with violins sustaining strenuous notes and eerie passages through the more elliptical parts of the film. This is not to say that these parts are ever unpleasant, but they do lend an element of chaos. These passages will suddenly be broken up by extreme moments of beauty, like a chaotic mind suddenly finding an idea. The entire score underlines a line of praise given to Turner in the film, which is that “Turner tames chaos.”
What we are left with is a very well-rounded look at Turner. Leigh does an excellent job of making himself clear: he does think that Turner was a bad person in some aspects, but Leigh also takes time to celebrate his contribution to British art. When asked why he chose to make a film about Turner, Leigh said he “felt there was scope for a film examining the tension between this very mortal, flawed individual, and the spiritual way he had of distilling the world.” Leigh does an excellent job of subtly showing these ideas, whether it be a cut between Turner’s father shaving a pig and then shaving Turner, or showing Turner adding one detail to a painting which completely transforms it. Mr. Turner is not only a great document of J.M.W. Turner’s life, but it is a beautiful and fantastic piece of cinema.