Mr. Turner from director Mike Leigh is a startlingly original biopic. In the same way that when you visit The National Gallery with all those historic paintings from all the great masters, you turn a corner and are transfixed to look upon a painting by Turner. You freeze in your tracks, jaw agape to stare in wonder at the striking modernity of it. Turner’s work is so timeless … In that same way, Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner is shockingly arresting.
In a career-defining performance, for which he has already won the Palme d’Or for Best Actor at Cannes, lead actor Timothy Spall imagines J.M.W. Turner during the last quarter-century of his life as a creature so guttural, that he may very well have “emerged from the mud of the River Thames.” Spall’s Turner is a man of intense passion and profound tenderness. Unfettered from any desire to please, he grunts, spits on his canvases, and sports a pug expression. He travels, paints, plays a guest in country estates and brothels alike, is a jocular participant as a member of the Royal Academy of Arts, lectures on perspective, and straps himself to the mast of a ship to weather a storm as research for his art. A celebrity in his day, Turner was fiercely private and protective of his anonymity in public. His courtship of the widow Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) catches us unaware to move us deeply, even as his exploitation of his doting housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) disgusts.
Director Leigh invites his actors as full and equal collaborators into the artistic process of writing the story through improvisation. “All creativity is improvisation and order,” he explains. “You start with one, and end with the other.” Leigh’s courage in trusting his actors so completely is rewarded with rich and resonant performances. Mr. Turner marks Spall’s seventh collaboration with Leigh, additional films to date have included: Life is Sweet, Secrets and Lies, Topsy-Turvy, and All or Nothing.
In the exquisite cinematography by Dick Pope, Turner’s paintings explode to life herein. Pope thrusts the viewer from Turner’s artwork right into the subjective canvas of the landscapes that provided the artist’s constant inspiration. The light that figures so prominently in the paintings by the artist is foregrounded as a deliberate character in the recounting of the story by director Mike Leigh. When visitors appear at Turner’s home, they are escorted by the artist’s father, William Turner Senior (Paul Jesson) for a brief time into a dark chamber to prepare them for the detonation of color when the curtain is drawn back to reveal the painter’s private gallery of works. All the while, we watch as Turner spies his guests through a peep hole in his studio.
“Making people laugh, hard as it is, is one thing; moving them to experience the profound, the sublime, the spiritual, the epic beauty, the terrifying drama of what it means to be alive on our planet – well, that’s altogether something else, and few of us ever achieve it, much as we may try,” Leigh professes. With Mr. Turner and Timothy Spall in the lead, Mr. Leigh has achieved “IT,” indeed. Mr. Turner is an immersive experience that transports you to back in time to a place utterly other.
I don’t think I will ever look at Turner’s paintings quite the same way after having seen this film, and after my elucidating conversation with the gifted Timothy Spall at the San Francisco Fairmont hotel. I invite you to imagine Spall’s wonderfully rich and expressive brogue as you read the interview that follows.
Sophia Stein: Mr. Turner is your seventh project with Mike Leigh, with whom you have been collaborating these past 33 years. How has your relationship evolved over that time?
Timothy Spall: Mike has always been a brilliant man of great breadth of knowledge. Every time I work with him, I feel that: (a) he gives me the best opportunities as an actor, and (b) I always feel more edified afterwards because what he asks you to do as an actor, no one else asks you to do. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t worked with fantastic people, but working with Mike Leigh is very different. Mike asks you to collaborate with him. He’s the maestro, he’s in charge, but he asks you to go on a journey with him. He’s clever, he’s bright, he’s instinctive, and he’s funny. And he is totally and utterly interesting. And interested — the older he gets, the more interested he has become in things. The more knowledge he has, the more daring, I think, he has become.
There is a point in your life where you choose: Do I know everything and do I just dance to the tune that I am comfortable with? Or do I keep on learning and risking it? I think Mike’s choice in risk has become — MORE.
For him to take this on as an idea — right from the beginning, you know, he’s asking for a kick squarely in the ass if he got it wrong. So when you present it to an audience — because you’re taking it slice by slice, from this parallel universe that you spend six months inventing, from this lagoon of subtext — you don’t really know where it’s going to go. So far, we seem to be riding a wave of massive good will. Mike’s the creator and the midwife, and what you end up being, is the baby that you’ve given birth to at the end of it all.
Sophia: What was it like to see yourself in this role as J.M.W. Turner on screen for the very first time?
Timothy: I remember, he showed it to me in a screening room at Warner Brothers in Soho on my own, he wasn’t in evidence. I was just shown to the room. It was a bit like some weird, quasi-KGB sort of experience: [interrogator voice] “Watch this film. What do you know about it? What did you do? Is this man you?” When I came out, I was quite flabbergasted, I could barely speak. I didn’t know what to make of myself, but I knew that I had just watched a really, really good film. I still can’t judge it objectively because I still feel so much a part of it. I am well-versed in how we did it.
Sophia: I am interested in how you arrived at that character. It emerges through improvisation. Can you describe how it all begins on the first day of rehearsal?
Timothy: The first day of rehearsal, there are the other people who are going to be in the film and the others who are going to design the film, to do the makeup, to shoot the film. And Mike Leigh says, as he always does every time: “Well, here we all are. We haven’t got a script. We vaguely know that this time it’s going to be about J.M.W. Turner. Where it’s going to go, I don’t know. This is just to say, hello. This, we laughingly call, ‘the read-through’ — but there’s nothing to read because it’s just me staring at you lot, and you staring back at me. In about a year’s time, hopefully, we’ll all be sitting in a viewing room looking at a film that we’ve made.” Literally, that is it.
Then what you do – I’ll try to distill it down to its essence — you always work with him individually at first, later in groups. You start creating a character using people that you’ve experienced in your life as the prototypes. You alchemize physical and vocal facets of different characters into one. You amalgamate those characters to build up a proto-human being.
Sophia: When I think about my grandparents and their cadence, how they spoke, they’re of a different time. I felt that you pulled us into a different time in the film with the language. Improvising something current day is one thing, but improvising something historical is a whole other layer. How did you find your way into the language of that time?
Timothy: You’re always trying to use the pointers of your research about the person and his life, the reports of the eyewitnesses, the paintings of him. Everybody was reading like hell — Georgian and Victorian autobiographies, and we tried as best we could in improvisations to recreate the parlance of the time.
Now, I think one of the reasons Mike asked me to play the role: When I was seriously ill some years ago, I had leukemia, and it didn’t go according to plan. During that process of getting better, for my own piece of mind because I didn’t know what would become of me, I just read all the novels of Charles Dickens back to back, one after the other, almost like I was living in a parallel universe in my mind to deflect me from the fact of what could have been a bad ending to a pretty nasty disease. I had the audacity not to peg it, and that’s what I’m doing here. So Mike knew that I did have this love for Dickens, this connection to Dickens.
I had worked with Mike on a play called Smelling a Rat, a long time ago at the Hampstead Theatre in London. It was all about rat catchers, “pest control operatives,” and I played a character called Vic Maggot. The character was based on a guy I knew who was a bus conductor, when buses used to have people to sell you the tickets. Maggot had this very baroque, anachronistic way of talking — but he was a contemporary character. So we’d already co-created a character that had this incongruous mixture.
You see the thing is, Mike chooses his actors very specifically for what they bring as character actors, for their knowledge, and for how they can imbue themselves with particulars of the job description.
Sophia: Was there a source on Turner that you gravitated to or that was particularly illuminating? Did Turner write at all about himself?
Timothy: It was difficult to get ahold of, but eventually we found a book that was devoted to Turner’s poetry. He wrote a lot of poetry — quite a few people wished he hadn’t because a lot of them say, it wasn’t that much cop.* I disagree with them, actually. I think he’s wonderful, and his poetry is rather illuminating about what he was feeling. It displays this broad and poetic view he had of the world and of the cosmos. Also, I read all of his letters, which had been compiled in a book. I looked very deeply into his work as a painter. Before we even started to rehearse, I worked for two years with an artist who gave me, more or a less, a fine arts course. He led me up to a place where we started experimenting with Turner’s techniques, to the point where I was able to copy on canvas, in oil, one of Turner’s masterpieces. Certain people think it’s all right, you know. — It’s alright, but it ain’t Turner.
*not much cop – not very good or useful, British Informal, Macmillan Dictionary
Sophia: Before committing to play this role, did you fancy yourself a painter?
Timothy: I was a doodler. I went to a school that wasn’t designed to create people to go to University. It was a place that was mainly there to create people to go into the service industries — but there were some fantastic people there. I gravitated towards the art department and ended up confused. One minute I was learning about surrealism and impressionism from this great guy, and at the same time, I had plans to join the army — the Royal Tank Regiment and become a tank driver. But then, being a sort of lazy, rather difficult adolescent – but, being allowed to indulge myself in the art department — I then was asked to do the school play. Somewhere in the middle of it, I realized that the fact that I wanted to join the army probably had more to do with wanting to dress up and wear the uniform rather than wanting to go out and kill people. My drama teacher pulled me aside, “I’ve never said this to any of my pupils before. It’s a horrible, stinking, rotten business, but I think you should be an actor. And not only that, I shall point you in the right directions. There’s no guarantee it’s going to work out for you, but this is what I think you should do …”
Sophia: What similarities did you discover between yourself and Turner? I’ve heard, for one, that you are a seaman, and boats, ships and the river, of course, defined Turner’s earliest experiences.
Timothy: I’ve got this boat that I taught myself how to navigate — some people think ill-advisedly. My wife and I circumnavigated Britain in it. So Mike knew that I was somebody who had a working knowledge of the sea. Coincidentally, I’m also from a similar background as Turner. He was a working class guy. His father was a barber; my mother was a self-taught hairdresser. My mother eventually moved to Margate when my father died.
Timothy: I know. Isn’t it strange. And not only that, the flat where she lived is now where they’ve built the Turner center. –Which is exactly the same place as where Sophia Booth’s boarding house was located! So there’s that. I suppose, if one could be highfalutin and say that being an actor is being an artist, then I’m an artist, as well. But I’ve come from a very ordinary background, where it’s not the obvious choice. Because of practicalities, there were more actors coming out of working class backgrounds then than there are now, simply because the funding isn’t there any longer.
Sophia: In imagining Turner, how did you find that you were different than him? What was more of a stretch for you in portraying Turner?
Timothy: I don’t pride myself on being a nice guy. I try to be a nice guy; I don’t always succeed. But I do go out of my way — sometimes irritatingly so — to be liked. What Turner certainly didn’t interest himself in being — was being liked. In fact, sometimes, he went out of his way to be a bit obnoxious. Or he just went with the dismissive side of his nature. I mean what we’re talking about is a man who very early on knew he was sacrificing a lot of the creature comforts of his life for his destiny.
Sophia: So few people today are willing to acknowledge that that is what it takes.
Timothy: Turner associated himself very much with one of the characters that he painted quite a lot, Aeneas. I sing that song from [Purcell’s opera] Dido and Aeneas. Aeneas was told by Jupiter that he wasn’t going to have that woman, Dido, that queen of Carthage, the love of his life; he was going to have to leave her. She eventually killed herself.
There is always a time, when you’re working with Mike Leigh, that the character starts controlling you. It’s not that you lose control of yourself. What is great about that, it cuts out your ego, your desire to look good. Basically you’re making that character work as much as you possibly can. Then, it starts taking over you and in an almost Frankenstein-ian way it says: “NO!, that isn’t what I’m like; THIS is what I’m like! And it’s your job to make it more what I’m like, not what you’re like.” What upset me quite a lot when I was immersing myself in this character was that Turner was at times dismissive, non-communicative and rather obnoxious — particularly to his housekeeper who was devoted to him. So when I had to be dismissive and cruel sometimes to her, it was horrible! But I knew that was the only way I had to go because, evidently, from all I had read, that’s what he was like with her. It didn’t mean that he didn’t love her. But there were elements of his character that I didn’t like at all!
Sophia: You have talked about the fact that there is evidence that Turner was highly sexual. What kinds of evidence?
Timothy: Ruskin, who was given the task to go for all of Turner’s work when he died, discovered a whole mass of beautifully painted pornographic scenarios at Turner’s estate. There is evidence that Turner visited brothels as well. I think that when you look at his painting and his poetry — that poem that I sing on Turner’s behalf in front of his painting with Sophia Booth is riddled with sexual connotations; it’s earthy and visceral. He’s a man with a libido. Albeit, he’s an odd “simian-like” and, some people have said, “ape-like” or “pig-like” man. Also, from an abstract point of view and from a feeling point of view, somebody with that ability to paint what is both scintillatingly beautiful and horrifying in nature could not be anything other than a person who had a very healthy set of testicles.
Sophia: In Turner’s gallery, there’s that scene where he refuses the offer of one hundred thousand pounds for all of his works.
Timothy: Which would have been the equivalent of probably two hundred million pounds today.
Sophia: Joseph Gillott, the pen nib manufacturing millionaire wants to buy his entire oeuvre; yet Turner admits that he has bequeathed all his work to the British Nation, “to be seen all together, in one place, gratis.” I felt so grateful today for such foresight on Turner’s part.
Timothy: What we discovered in that scene is based on a truthful episode. A man did come, I read about it in more than one place, and Turner did say no. Of course, you could say, it’s easier for him to have made that choice because he’d earned quite a lot of money and had gotten himself into a comfortable position. But as he’d got older, he went round starting to buy his paintings back, back, back. They were his family, in a sense. They were him. When this man Gillott came — who was a bit like Warren Buffett, somebody of that wealth, with that ability to say, “I’ll buy the lot. You’ll be in clover forever”– it was obvious to Turner as a man of destiny who had devoted his entire life to all that had compelled him to paint. He remained true to his soul, his insides, his understanding, his love of the Academy, and his love of pushing forward with his art. Turner was beloved in the Academy, and he loved it, but that didn’t stop him from being a renegade.
Turner was driven by something almost bigger than himself. Incongruously, it came out of him — this beastlike, visceral, guttural man with this amazing polymathic intellect and this poetic soul. Turner was compelled by desire to record the cosmos in its magnificence and its destructiveness.
Turner and Constable, in particular, turned the landscape from what was in the background of the painting into what was the painting itself. What he was doing — as far as my understanding of it when you go really deep down — was to try and understand God, in a sense. Turner’s last words were: “The sun is God.”
Sophia: Those were Turner’s historically recorded last words?
Timothy: There are reports that those were his last words. The more I look back at it, the more I understand it. As he got older, Turner was trying to reach towards the essence of everything.
He was this contradictory man: this very earthy creature who had this massively poetic, ethereal soul. That tension is very much what he was painting. He was always painting man’s desire to match nature, in a sense.
Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps: Turner makes Hannibal the size of a peanut; whereas French artists were painting pictures of Napoleon as the central character at that time. Hannibal is on his elephant with the army following, poised to conquer Rome. But right in the back of that painting is this massive hand, almost like the hand of God, which is a huge sweeping vortex cloud that is coming to stop them.
In the foreground of that painting, rather than the story of Hannibal’s romantic magnificence, one of Hannibal’s soldiers is about to rape the wife or lover of the Roman soldier that he has just killed. He looks up and he points up at that cloud. To me, that is Turner saying: “Be as hubristic as you can. You may think you can match nature, but in the end, you’re nothing in comparison. The glory, the power, and the horror of nature is within every man – but it’s bigger than every man.”
Top Image: Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner, “Mr. Turner.” Photo by Simon Mein, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.