Mike Leigh is the reason I love cinema. When I was in my late teens I discovered Secrets & Lies, High Hopes, Life is Sweet and Vera Drake. Then in my first year at University I saw Another Year and it sealed the deal. I was reminded of why I’d chosen to study film, why I adored British cinema and why Leigh is such a unique and fearless director. I discovered him and Loach at the same time and there work holds a very special place within me – I am often moved to tears by their films just because I am reminded of the beginning of my love affair with the moving image. Leigh gets more out of his actors than any other director working today. Unlike my other favourites such as Allen or Scorsese, he often waits several years between projects. This is usually due to the method that he requires his performers to commit to. It is a long process creating characters such as Vera Drake. Actors are given months, or even years, to immerse themselves in their characters, creating complex back stories and learn certain trades and professions. Timothy Spall demonstrates such dedication in Leigh’s latest masterpiece Mr. Turner. Portraying landscaper painter, J. M. W. Turner, Spall has already deservedly won the Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. He devours the role, portraying Turner as more of an animal than a man. It is a staggering feat within contemporary performance. I marvelled at Spall’s characterisation for the film’s entire 150 minutes. He captures Turner with an eccentricity, a passion and a complex and internal sorrow. We don’t like Turner but we are fascinated by him. He causes as much suffering as he himself suffers. He is selfish, solitary and at times monstrous but the work he creates on a canvas overwhelms – spilling out into the film’s aesthetic.
The supporting cast are as enchanting as Spall. Marion Bailey plays Turner’s mistress. She is vulnerable yet strong-willed. She is kind hearted and brings out the best in Turner. Dorothy Atkinson is the film’s greatest surprise. Her performance as Turner’s housekeeper is painful to watch and she develops it so steadily and expertly that our pity and sorrow for her grows constantly. Leigh conducts many of his usual acting family in Mr. Turner with familiar faces such as Lesley Manville and Ruth Sheen making wonderful appearances. Mr. Turner is as masterful as Secrets & Lies, demonstrating that Leigh is as powerful a cinematic presence as he was during the nineties. He continues to maintain an astonishing respect for his audience. He never feels the need to conclude or provide unnecessary exposition. Like life itself, Leigh allows scenarios to stay open, unresolved and unknown. There is a really satisfying closure that comes with the lack of insight we have into certain characters and their endings. Leigh has saved one of his best till last. Understated, explosive and turbulent, Mr. Turner is romantic, raw and challenging viewing. Emotions are constantly high but there is comedy and charm that evens out the film’s intensity and tames its wild, beastly characters. There is plenty of the typical Leigh-like naturalism at work here but just enough artistic absurdity to make Mr. Turner fresh and unexpected. Leigh remains one of the greatest director’s working today. If Mr. Turner does indeed turn out to be his final film then he couldn’t have chosen a more triumphant way to exit the arena.
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