Stand at easel: Mike Leigh overlays his stylised realism on to costume drama in Mr Turner. Photo: Courtesy of Liveright Publishing Corporation (Lovecraft)
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With love and squalor: Mike Leigh’s brand of realism is perfect for Turner

An interesting tension exists in the film between that grunginess and passages of intense beauty. It is a compliment commonly paid to well-shot films to say that any one of their frames could be hung in a gallery. This is unmistakably the case here. 

Mr Turner (12A)
dir: Mike Leigh

Effie Gray (12A)
dir: Richard Laxton

Audiences were not accustomed to the idea of a Mike Leigh period drama in the years before Topsy-Turvy (1999) and then Vera Drake (2004). His earlier films had always dropped anchor in soulless modern suburbs or on cluttered council estates. Cortinas, not corsets, were his thing; domestic spats, rather than the sort worn over the shoe.

The most surprising discovery of Topsy-Turvy, his film about Gilbert and Sullivan, was not so much that his brand of stylised realism could remain intact in the period setting but that it improved and nourished the genre into which he had strayed. One subtly radical moment in that film showed the composer Arthur Sullivan slouching on a bed. Slouching! No one had slouched in a British period drama. Now they did.

His new film, Mr Turner, is full of bad posture. (Now there’s a poster quote for you.) It doesn’t stop there. Back trouble, snaggle-teeth, catarrh – and that’s just Timothy Spall, who plays J M W Turner. His face is as squeezed and sour as a used lemon. He favours wherever possible coded grunts and groans over actual conversation. These range from a gruff clearing of the throat, when he is complimented on a painting, all the way up to a protracted death rattle, should he be informed that his griping contemporary Haydon (Martin Savage) is in the vicinity.

Turner is uncouth in his relationship with his stooped, mumbling housekeeper, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson). After he has pressed her against the bookcase to give her something other than a literary recommendation, she tilts her face hopefully towards his like a flower bending to the light. The forecast shows no chance of sun. It’s a grim existence, but Atkinson, who crams layers of rueful humour into the smallest glance or shrug, is a taciturn comic sidekick to rank alongside Wallace’s Gromit or Dame Edna Everage’s Madge Allsop.

Turner’s antipathy towards other artists is expressed even in the way he greets them. (An encounter between two titans of British painting is distilled into this fraught exchange at the Royal Academy: “Constable.” “Turner.”) He reserves his true love for landscapes, among which Leigh depicts him as an almost unnoticed figure. In the opening scene, the camera happens upon him as if by accident, looming scarecrow-stiff out of the grass in the chilled splendour of a Dutch dawn.

There is love also for Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey), the Margate landlady whose kiss transforms this frog into . . . if not exactly a prince, then a more amenable frog. And for his father, William Sr (Paul Jesson), with whom Turner grapples blithely cheek to cheek: they are two peas in a pod, two pink pigs in a sty.

William Sr runs errands to buy his son’s paint. He heaves canvases across the landing and mixes yellows on a palette, dragging his sleeve in the gloop. It may be art but it is also subject to Leigh’s abiding interest in the majestic drabness of everyday labour. Cabbies and checkout assistants in the 2002 picture All or Nothing, plumbers and cooks in Life Is Sweet (1990), artists in Mr Turner: it’s all work.

As one would expect from Leigh, this is a movie marinated in detail. We know that his actors, who build their performances through improvisation informed by research, will not have attempted so much as a rattling cough without first determining the median consistency of phlegm in mid-19th-century England. An interesting tension exists in the film between that grunginess and passages of intense beauty. It is a compliment commonly paid to well-shot films to say that any one of their frames could be hung in a gallery. This is unmistakably the case here, but then it would be. Leigh and his regular cinematographer, Dick Pope, have expressly re-created the colour tones, textures and light fibres seen in Turner’s paintings – in one instance, even a specific tableau (from The Fighting Temeraire, depicting the last journey of a decrepit warship).

To make this possible, CGI has been admitted into the cinema of Mike Leigh, though it will take more than the odd sunbeam or paddle-steamer before he becomes the next James Cameron. Then again, perhaps Mr Turner is Leigh’s Avatar. It is just as concerned as Cameron’s film with the relationship between interior and exterior worlds, the corporeal and the spiritual. In extrapolating connections between the man’s art and his life – illuminated most strongly when Turner refuses to reveal to Haydon examples of private suffering that would win him the moral high ground – Leigh finds them everywhere. Like with the snuff and saliva that Turner blows and gobs on to his paint, life and art are rendered messily indivisible.

Effie Gray, another new British costume drama, has had an extraordinary run of blasted luck. It was shot in 2011, but its release was delayed by lawsuits alleging that Emma Thompson’s screenplay, about the unconsummated marriage between the Victorian art critic John Ruskin and his young bride, had drawn unacknowledged inspiration from other sources. Now in the clear, it arrives in cinemas in the same month as Mr Turner. There is even an overlap in the dramatis personae. As played by Joshua McGuire, the preening young Ruskin provides one of the jubilant highlights of Leigh’s picture. Rolling his spongy Rs and rubbing his thighs in the manner of Vic Reeves leering over female panellists on Shooting Stars, he is a scream. As an older Ruskin in Effie Gray, Greg Wise is more of a whimper.

Wise doesn’t have the benefit of playing comic relief: this is a dourer piece, focusing on Ruskin’s emotional impediments and the isolation this imposes on Effie. In the title role, Dakota Fanning has a certain haunted grace. But in cinematic terms Effie Gray is painting by numbers. The staging is dust-dry. Everything is fresh out of the dressing-up box. It isn’t even pretty. You couldn’t hang it on your wall, though it might not disgrace the cover of a shortbread tin. When Effie’s doctor advises the negligent Ruskin to treat his wife with “a sharper eye and a keener ear”, he could be giving notes to the film-makers. 

Mr Turner is released on 31 October

Effie Gray is in cinemas now 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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