Mike Leigh has been an omnipresent figure in the British film industry over the last 30 years, telling stories about real people, living real lives. There are no far off universes, no space travel, no mechanised monsters here. To have had such continuous success with the ability to touch the audiences with their day-to-day emotions, making them sympathise and say “yes, that is what my life is like” while also holding a mirror up to society, is a true triumph. It is no surprise therefore that, even at the age of 71, there is no slowing Leigh down as he delivers another brilliant picture about real people. But this time, this character actually IS real, in the form of one of our countries best ever artists, Turner.
But to say Leigh delivers us the story of Turners life, isn’t particularly true. There is no real story here. No driving narrative, no central protagonist with an inner conflict and an insatiable desire to achieve some goal. Rather, this is a faithful attempt to reconstruct the painter’s life from what we know of it. We don’t see his childhood, and one could postulate that this is because we know little about it. Instead we see a series of events, from the death of his father, to tying himself to a ships mast to see the waves of the sea in a storm for a painting, to him coming to terms with public opinion turning against his continuously more abstract style, to his late marriage and slow death. At times these events seem disconnected, and the film feels as if it is meandering aimlessly towards almost nothing at all, with little direction or purpose.
But it is here, it could be argued, that lies the genius of the film. Leigh has the experience and confidence to not stick to strict rules of structure, and not give his film a strict narrative to drive along with. Instead of overly dramatizing Turner’s life, presenting a false, if entertaining story, Leigh would rather try and present the best truth he can, by simply presenting Turner as a person the best he can. The film may be meandering and abstract in its structure, but as were Turner’s paintings themselves, and in many ways, the films meandering nature represents Turner’s character in the best possible way. A meandering man who many saw as an enigma, but underneath is really very simple. A man who wanted to paint, who wanted comfort, and someone to comfort him. And despite there never being any strict story for us to follow, the film is always a pleasurable place to be. Leigh draws out the character so well that in spite of his oddities, his “gargoyle” nature and animalistic grunting, we slowly come to truly care for this man, and enjoy the simple act of being in his company. This is helped massively by a superb performance by Timothy Spall, always best when allowed to roam free with odd, eccentric characters, putting in a momentous performance.
This is biopic film making as it should be. Not overly dramatizing the nature of a person’s life, but instead slowly and carefully curating the reality of it, leading us along to simply understand being in their company. It may not be for some, for those seeking to be pulled along an adventure where you are anxious about what will happen next. However, for those looking for an experience, and a chance to understand the life and personality of one of this country’s greatest ever artists, this is a truly wonderful work of art that is not to be missed.