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

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.