Mike Leigh: My Turner, Cinematic Painter

By Alessandra Quattrocchi, March 6, 2015

Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh

In "Mr Turner" Mike Leigh draws the impassioned portrait of the last 25 years in the life of William Turner, English master of painting (1775-1851).

Mr Turner is a thing of love, the impassioned portrait of the last 25 years in the life of William Turner, English master of painting, and Leigh’s greatest achievement is that he manages to show us reality as a painter would see it: slightly larger than life, more colourful, more detailed. Praise should be given to Dick Pope’s cinematography, that was nominated for an Oscar but unfortunately it was not to be.

I have always admired the patience of actors and directors waiting on one journalist after another (media laws dictate tv crews go first, then radio journalists, and only then print media), because really, how many new questions can a person think of about the same film, and thus how many times does the moviemaker have to answer the same questions over and over, however asinine? It is always a challenge to dream up new points of view, and always disappointing to realise, reading other colleagues’ efforts, that nobody ever manages to produce a shred of uniqueness in these marathons. Meeting Mike Leigh, however, I was so fired up that I was not worried if I was going to manage to engender a spark of interest in the small tired man dressed in a brown shirt and black jacket sitting in front of me. I really, really wanted to tell him how much I had enjoyed his film at its Rome preview – both the film and his original screenplay, in fact – and I really, really wanted to pick his brains on a couple of aesthetic points. Because his Mr Turner is first and foremost a work of visual beauty, people tend either to hate it (“boring!”, or more tolerantly, “it is half an hour too long”) or to adore it (check the user reviews on www.imdb.com). I went to see it twice in ten days, which for a 149-minute-long film (two and a half hours) is undoubtedly a proof of love.

Leigh cheerfully acknowledges all this. “The first impetus of this film is the painting of Turner, which I just think is most magical and important to me and to everybody” he tells me. “I’ve always thought from my earliest encounter with Turner that he is nothing if not a cinematic painter. The contrast between his work and his personality is fascinating. Turner is an enigma. Research Turner and you will find all sorts of contradictory accounts and ideas as to what he was about or what he was like. Google “Image Turner’ and you won’t find any two images that are the same; they all look different. The contrast between Turner the man and Turner the painter simply boils down to this: he was this guy who led this complicated, untidy, vulnerable, imperfect, passionate existence, who produced this extraordinary, sublime and poetic work. That is the conundrum”.

Any representation of Turner the man, therefore, must be conjectural. It fell to Timothy Spall to give flesh to this enigma obsessed by painting. Through his scoffing and his gravelly voice we get to know a man of few doubts, reserved feelings and rare animal impulses We have Turner and his doting father; Turner and the women of his life (the nagging former mistress and her daughters; the maid Hannah he uses from time to time and abandons in the end; Mrs Booth, the gentle and well-loved companion of his later years). A man of contradictions; harsh character but a devoted son; a selfish man in love, but a sensitive soul. In Lord Egremont’s grand mansion Petworth, where his specially painted landscapes are set in the walls, Turner stops to listen to a Miss Coggins beautifully playing Beethoven. He confesses being partial to Purcell, and the lady picks out a melody. Turner follows her, haltingly singing Dido’s Lament (“Remember me, but ah, forget my fate!”), a broken but eerily fascinating rendition in his gruff voice. Lovers of Dido and Aeneas are transfixed (as, indeed, is Miss Coggins, eyes brimming with tears: “overcome with emotion”, notes the screenplay).

The Director Mike Leigh

The Director Mike Leigh

It is a very nuanced country this England that Leigh recounts. We have Turner’s father, the barber; Turner himself, purposefully and irreverently charging between eccentric trips and aristocratic houses; the bountiful landlady, the squabbling painters of the Academy, a young John Ruskin extremely full of himself, a brief appearance of a young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert sneering in front of one of Turner’s late paintings (“Was IST das”?). Leigh wrote his screenplay in a rich, quaint, primly decorous (most of the time) Victorian English, and he had to steep himself in the testimonies and the documents we have on Turner.

Dick Pope’s cinematography melts the heart of sensitive viewers from the very first scene. It is dawn, and a windmill suggests that we are in the Netherlands. The windmill sits on the border of a canal, the sky is a delicate hue in contrast with the dark bushes and the tender green of the grass; the stillness of the hour broken by a distant chatter coming closer: it is two women talking (in Dutch, subtitled) of menial things, a party, a man a bit too full of himself; they are solid, cheerful and commonplace, wearing long skirts, clogs and white caps, one carrying a heavy double yoke with buckets on her shoulders. We sense that we are watching a scene that somebody else is watching too, and that this is the detached view of an outsider. The camera rolls away to show a stubby man, dark against the rising sky, impervious to the voices, dabbling at a sketchbook, taking notes: painting.

The essence of a dedicated painter is, in fact, that nothing on earth comes before painting. Even love and death can be partially put aside on occasion, because the substance of reality itself exists exclusively to be observed and portrayed. Thus the audience is immersed in a world where light, colours and shapes are constantly essential. “We are, at a certain level” underlines Leigh, “trying to turn on the audience to the spirit and the quality of Turner and Turner’s vision and view of the world and of the elements, and of light. Dick Pope is an extraordinarily clever and brilliant cinematographer; he shot all my films since 1990. He’s done an amazing job of bringing this to the screen”. However, while Turner’s ‘vision’ is evident throughout the film, what the audience sees is the world through his eyes before it makes it to the canvas. Turner’s last years marked his evolution towards a visionary style nobody had attempted before – it may be called pre-Impressionism, but in fact it actually is Impressionistic (when Pissarro, Manet and Degas launched the movement in Paris in 1874 , Turner had been dead for 24 years). The hazy shapes, the misty colours of Turner’s last paintings could not be translated onto the screen. What the audience gets instead are the light, the colours and the framing of reality: in the beautiful landscapes when the painter roams the country, and even inside the houses he inhabits, with the perspective of rooms, of tables and chairs and pots, interiors in rich detail with more than a hint of the Flemish Renaissance masters. But Leigh denies this: “The only painter that was our reference was Turner” he laughs. “By the time we shot the film we were absolutely marinated in Turner. We’d been studying him for years. I don’t think it would have even occurred to us to reference to any other painter”.

But the real winners in my heart were the scenes set in Margate, Turner’s ‘buen retiro’ for several years (and the place where he met his last lover, his landlady Mrs Sophia Booth): the sea, the seagulls in the searingly clear air, the morning softness, the sky (“the loveliest skies in Europe”, in Turner’s own words; although the scenes were actually shot in Cornwall, Margate apparently not being what it was in Turner’s time any more).

Thus, light and colours are at the core of the painter’s experience. Turner’s father buys colours in the shop of an Italian colourman: chrome yellow, flake white, a bladder of ultramarine blue from Afghanistan, poppy oil, Indian red, the tools of the trade, to be ground at home, some honoured by time, many soon to disappear with the advent of synthetic colours (the first one, mauvine, was developed by young William Perkin in 1856, five years after Turner’s death. Synthetic colours helped the Impressionists to recreate a wider palette of delicate hues). Turner receives Mrs Somerville, the Scottish mathematician who shows him her experiments with prismatic light. And much later, posing as a common citizen, he closely questions the young American photographer Mayall in his shop on the Strand. “There are, interestingly, no surviving photographs of him at all, even though we know he went to a photographer and had his photograph taken”, observes Leigh.

While waiting to get his likeness taken, Turner asks how the process works: “The image you create is not of colour. For why?”. ”I am afraid” Mayall answers, “that is a question we have yet to answer, sir. It is a mystery”. “And long may it remain so”, comments Turner under his breath.

Turner was intrigued, not preoccupied, says Leigh. “The myth is that the discovery of photography caused him to change the way he painted, but that had already happened. By the time Turner discovered photography, which was in the late 1840s, he’d already undertaken his own revolution, he was already painting in a way that anticipated  Impressionism and 20th century art. I do not think he was negatively worried. I think he was intrigued. But he could see, undoubtedly, the implications of photography on painting. I think he was fascinated, as he was with many things, by the march of time and progress with it”.

Personally, I was reminded of the great use another English master of colour, David Hockney, recently made of photography. But this was all far away in Turner’s world. The viewer is treated, however, to Turner watching the train to Margate pass through the countryside: by Timothy Spall’s transfixed look it is evident that he is already thinking of painting the black engine and its huge white swirls of smoke.

Mr Turner is no ordinary biopic, but it is a superb piece of period drama, with the attention to detail and atmosphere in which the British excel. Leigh had already made a foray in the 19th century with Topsy Turvy, the 1999 musical film on Gilbert and Sullivan. Now as then, he says, his aim was much more than to produce a beautiful image from the past: “We tried, in some ways, to subvert the costume drama by making a costume drama in which people were real and not chocolate box characters, you know…”. His Turner certainly comes to life, and not as an absolute paradigm of the Artist, either. Because “good, bad or indifferent, an artist is like you or me; an artist is somebody who does a job of work, and this is very much a film about a man whom you see working” says Leigh. “He rolls up his sleeves and he gets dirty doing the job of making painting. It so happens that this particular artist is a genius, and has vision and ability to translate what he experiences and what he sees into extraordinary art. But it is about a human being, confronting as everybody else the enormously difficult job of getting through life and carrying out your project. Life is not perfect, and Turner’s life was no exception”.


Alessandra Quattrocchi is an Italian journalist working for a press agency in Rome.  She writes on international politics, cultural affairs and Italy. She spent several years working for a European TV station in France and is an expert amateur on English literature and Gender studies.

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