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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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.