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