Turner tableau: Mike Leigh unveils portrait of celebrated British painter of light

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As his rep and roles have grown in size, Timothy Spall has started to loom a lot like this millennium’s Charles Laughton. Latest Exhibit A: Mr. Turner, which won him Best Actor honors at the Cannes Film Festival and threatens to do serious damage to Best Actor categories on these shores once the film goes into release here via Sony Pictures Classics on Dec. 19.

His idiosyncratic, warts-above-all portrait of Joseph Mallord William Turner, that shining light of early 19th-century British painters, is Laughtonesque in the extreme, reminiscent not so much of Laughton’s Rembrandt as Laughton’s Quasimodo.

Physically, socially, emotionally, anyway you want to slice it, this was one ugly dude, and Spall coughs, charges and careens around this elegantly appointed biopic like a deranged water buffalo, all grunts and guttural sounds, mistreating the women who loved him (there were three, not counting the brothel traffic), outraging his critics and his queen, while churning out masterpiece after masterpiece—some of the most breathtaking seascapes and landscapes ever committed to oil and watercolor.

This casting was a slam-dunk for writer-director Mike Leigh, who put Spall on the cinematic map with Life Is Sweet and Secrets & Lies and has been employing him with regularity ever since. He relished the contradiction that this gruff, growling bear of a man was, perversely perhaps, capable of delicate, defining brushstrokes.

“The tension between Turner and his sublime, epic work invited an inevitable movie,” Leigh said when he and Spall met the press after a screening at this fall’s New York Film Festival. They were accompanied by Leigh’s longtime cameraman, Dick Pope, who won Cannes’ Vulcan Award for his exquisite work on this film, and by the trio of actresses who played the painter’s primary loves (Dorothy Atkinson as Hannah Danby, his housekeeper of 40 years; Ruth Sheen as her aunt, Sarah Danby, by whom he had two illegitimate daughters; and Marion Bailey as Sophia Booth, his widowed landlady with whom he spent his relative happily-ever-aftering).

Leigh admits the idea of doing a J.M.W. Turner film had gnawed at him for decades. “Apart from everything else, there hasn’t been a motion picture about Turner, so I thought it was about time we made one,” he points out. “He was one of the great painters in the world—and he’s obviously the greatest of the English painters. His work invites a movie. It is cinematic, and the more I looked into it, the more I realized that Turner as a character, as a personality—this conflicted, eccentric, passionate guy—ticked all the boxes for a potential character in a Mike Leigh film.”

According to Spall, the brutish body language of the character was mutually arrived at by the director and the actor. “There is a process that is of Mike’s invention in the way he works where we go for it together. He does it with all of his films and all of his actors. It’s collaborative, and you build a character up from nothing to something, using various human beings as templates. In this case, it was bringing the character to you, creating organically and physically, in union with what you were learning about the extant material that was spoken about him. His physicality and his earthiness and his oddness as a man—in conjunction with this beautiful, fantastic, sublime work—was a very interesting thing to delve into.”

Mike Leigh films never venture out of present tense, with the noted exception of his best films: this, Topsy-Turvy, about Gilbert and Sullivan’s combustible creation of The Mikado, and Vera Drake, about a friendly neighborhood abortionist of the 1950s.

One might suspect from the evidence at hand that Leigh’s heart belongs to the past. “I feel very strongly that period films suffer from a feeling that somehow things have got to be tempered for a contemporary audience, that it shouldn’t look too antique, although the language should be modified so that the audience can understand it, but the actresses shouldn’t wear corsets because it’s not very sexy, and this results in a kind of halfway house,” Leigh contends. “What we have striven to do is to make everything as accurate as we can. We know perfectly well that if you jumped in a time machine and went back to Turner’s world, what we would experience would probably bear no resemblance to this film at all. We can always say, ‘This is only our notional manifestation,’ but we’ve gone as far as we can to be what we think and feel is accurate without being documentary. It’s, obviously, an impressionistic film.”

Turner’s work served as the visual reference of the eras being depicted—the late Georgian/early Victorian periods that the film moves through. “The look of the film,” he continues, “comes out of a sense of us trying to interpret visually his paintings.”

So, armed with a pliable camera instead of a paintbrush, cinematographer Pope went about painstakingly attempting to approximate visions that inspired Turner.

“There’s a lot of it where we’re looking through his eyes across his shoulder in terms of camera,” Pope says. “One thing’s lighting, but another thing is where we put the camera, because that’s almost more important in one of Mike’s films than anything else. Where do you see it from? A lot of the vantage points in the film are looking from Turner to what he’s observing. That’s kind of how we attacked it.

“It was less reproducing the work, more evoking the spirit of what he was seeing, what inspired him in the first place to journey to Margate, which was and still is—obviously, that’s not changed—famous for its light and famous for its wonderful sunrises, et cetera. It was evoking that, so what drove him, in a way, drove us.”

Mr. Turner is the last word in filming-where-it-happened location lensing, and often waiting for the right light was part of it. “Mike and I studied almost everything we shot and decided at what time of day we were going to be there,” the cameraman recalls. “We were blessed with wonderful weather last summer when we photographed the film. We really tried to capture the best light—interiors as well.”

People have approached Pope about the view from Mrs. Booth’s window in Margate with “That’s CG, right? Outside the window?” The DP shoots back, “The hell it is! It never is on one of Mike’s films. That house was inside, outside, upstairs, downstairs, nights and days. What Mrs. Booth had behind her when she was in that room or when Tim ate his supper was the view out the window at that time of the day.”

Leigh bought and (as John Ford would) printed the myth that Turner lashed himself to a ship’s mast to properly inhale the fury of a raging storm—a matter of some historical conjecture, but cinematically how it plays! And he confesses that “these magical guys back in London created, with our collusion,” some CGI locomotion for The Fighting Temeraire, the gunboat that figured in the Battle of Trafalgar. “We shot it very late in the evening, just on the cusp of sunset, almost in the same place where the painting is depicted,” says Pope, “and we were blessed with a most fantastic sunset. The whole landscape and the actors were imbued with this beautiful light.”

For Turner’s 1812 Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, Leigh underlines how it’s not the approach that one would expect. “Many a painter would fill the canvas with elephants,” he notes. “Turner, in making Hannibal and his elephants tiny in the distance, dwarfed by eternity and the epic landscape and the elements, is making an interesting statement. He actually says in the scene,  ‘Hubris!’

“What I’ve tried to do throughout the film—apart from making sure that we, through the action and never separate from the action, look at the various paintings and bring them into focus—is also to talk about what Turner’s preoccupations were, to what Turner’s sense of life is in the paintings. There are so many choices in the film that are balanced between character issues and relationships with the journey of the painter and the march of time. One of the things that the film is about is progressing from the Georgian to the Victorian period and the way things change.”

Prior to filming, cinematographer Pope burned the midnight oil at the Tate Museum, “a fantastic resource for everything Turneresque. They have the paints he used, and we took that. In a way, the film is colored. The colorization of the film is very much in the palette of what Turner was using at the time, so we introduced teal. Actually, he says it in the film, and so does his father when the father is buying the paints. We kind of used the colors he was buying in that color shop as our own palette.”

One final extra touch is the fact that an authentic painter is in front of the canvas in Mr. Turner. “This film was called Untitled 2013 when we made it,” Spall recalls. “All of Mike’s films are named after the year. He asked me to do it properly in 2010, and I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Don’t get too excited. We haven’t got the money. We don’t know whether it’s going to happen or not, but are you, in principle, prepared to do it?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Also, would you mind starting to learn how to paint?’ Which I did. I spent two and a half years learning how to paint. I got quite heavily into the whole process of that. I was taught by a brilliant guy—a portraitist and teacher called Timothy Wright, who took me through all the disciplines up to the point where I was able to actually do a full-size copy of a Turner painting. I couldn’t do it again, but somehow I managed to do it then. I did a hell of a lot of preparation for it.”

There’s a P.S.: “I haven’t been able to pick up a brush since we stopped shooting.”