There is really only one word to describe Mike Leigh’s biopic of Britain’s treasured landscape painter, Billy Turner, and that is: beautiful. With the camera as a paintbrush, Leigh, working with cinematographer Dick Pope, evokes the sunset palette of the great man’s canvases as the world in which he lived, breathed and finally died. What better way to remember his genius than to plonk us right in the centre of his vision?
Mr Turner, as explained by Leigh in the Q&A we were lucky enough to catch at Dalston’s ripe old Rio cinema, was ‘a man of contradictions.‘ In relation to Timothy Spall’s mesmerising, hilarious and heart-breaking performance, that is a slight understatement. For someone able to produce such timeless impressions of the sublime, Turner is shown to be a grunting, gurgling, no-nonsense artist with more than a little of a lecherous side to him. Be prepared for extensive throat-clearing as a means of communication – but it works. You are sucked in by his charm. And as we all know, dark humour is Leigh’s favourite game.
There was one resounding consensus of concern in the cinema, however, and that was to do with sore bums. There’s no question that it’s a very long film, and the pace does slow in the second half. But although there were chunks of everyday meanderings that could have been cut for lack of much action, it was clear that this biopic was a labour of love by each and every department, and perhaps they just didn’t want to stop.
The unique score by Gary Yershon was not a predictable period piece that was ‘slapped on like wallpaper’ (said Leigh, referring to the way music is often used in biopics), but a chorus of saxophones in a haunting whine that never intruded. As for the actors – not just Spall but Marion Bailey as his widowed lover Mrs Booth, and Dorothy Atkinson as his besotted housekeeper – they physically embodied the rich characters in everything from the way they moved to the finely tuned 19th-century accents. Leigh talked of the meticulous research the cast and crew embarked on to forage a unique contextual picture. It was clear the authenticity of the man’s life was very important to the overall vision, which is why Spall was always going to be Turner, since way back to their Topsy Turvy collaboration in 1999. ‘He got the grain of Turner’ Leigh explained. It was Spall’s Dickensian interests, his working class background, and his Londonian roots that clinched the deal.
How would Leigh describe this legendary Londoner? ‘He was both an insider and an outsider, because he was just so much more brilliant than everyone else.’ And his work? ‘A celebration of the elements.’ A fractious character with both dark and light inside him is indeed the portrait that is painted, with a focus on his driven distance from anything and anyone that didn’t feature in his artistic pursuits. Cold? A little. Possessed by beauty? Far more.
Don’t miss the totally visceral performances from three great Brit actors, and Leigh’s overall creation that is worthy of it’s subject matter by a mile. Just stock up on snacks beforehand to keep you going.