Film reviews: Mr Turner | Nightcrawler

Timothy Spall in Mr Turner. Picture: Contributed
Timothy Spall in Mr Turner. Picture: Contributed
Share this article
0
Have your say

APPROPRIATELY for a film about JMW Turner, Mike Leigh has created something of a masterwork with this late-period biopic of the British artist.

Mr Turner (12A)

Director: Mike Leigh

Starring: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Marion Bailey

*****

Featuring a tour de force performance from Timothy Spall in the title role, Mr Turner studiously avoids the tropes of the genre, exploring its subject’s life through scenes of meticulously observed human behaviour that better reflect the chaos of the world to which Turner was responding than would have been possible had his life and times been represented through a series of connect-the-dots dramatic flashpoints.

Not that Leigh, who’s tried his hand at the period biopic before with his Gilbert and Sullivan film Topsy Turvy, would ever have approached the painter in such a conventional manner. But even by his standards, Mr Turner is a richer, more challenging and more experimental film than he’s attempted of late. Unlike the rather schematic, repetitious likes of Another Year and Happy-Go-Lucky, it’s a film that’s sprawling and intimate, messy and beautiful, simple and perplexing all at once. It’s also fully in synch with the complex minutiae of its characters’ lives and, as such, reveals much about Turner’s artistic process and its relation to his varied and contradictory existence.

Homing in on Turner in middle-to-old age, the film begins in 1826 with his return to London from a tranquil-seeming trip to Holland and follows him through to his death in 1851, when the increasing abstraction of his work had alienated all but the most far sighted of critics and patrons. The passing of time, of eras, of old certainties are the general themes being explored here, and Turner’s primal need to express on canvas all that he sees and feels but is unable to verbalise is the general lens through which Leigh views the artist as an old man. But almost from the off there’s a playful debunking of myths that helps present a more believable picture of artistic genius as something that’s both innate to the possessor and fuelled by the external forces surrounding him.

In the film Turner is presented as a mass of conflicting impulses. He’s a master craftsman and a celebrity, a man who moves with arrogance and ease through both the exalted circles of London high society and the rat-infested markets and shops that are the city’s lifeblood. He’s caring in some respects (his relationship with his father – played by Paul Jesson – is sweet and tender), a bastard in others (his daughters live in poverty while he enjoys the riches acclaim has brought him). He’s also uncouth, unkempt and inarticulate, grunting his way through conversations and displaying disdain for rivals and champions alike (John Ruskin is mercilessly mocked for his theories on Turner’s work, theories that would eventually rehabilitate his reputation).

But his arrogance is offset too by his enquiring mind, something that frequently leads him to keep the company of the leading thinkers of the day, absorbing their scientific and philosophical theories about the workings of the universe and applying them to his own work in ways that are both imperceptible and practical. There’s a great scene, for instance, in which he invites Scottish scientist Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) into his studio to test her theories on the magnetic properties of light. Refracting the sun through coloured glass onto the canvas on which he’s about to paint, it shows his readiness to experiment and his determination to use whatever tools he could to advance his art. Elsewhere we see him cough-up a phlegmy ball of spit to enhance the consistency of his paint, applying it to the canvas in a theatrically slapdash style that will perhaps give Turner scholars kittens, but for cinematic purposes allows Leigh to convey the inner torment and outer chaos that Turner seemed increasingly intent on channelling into his work.

Needless to say, this isn’t a film in which divine inspiration leads automatically to great art; it has to be worked at, experimented with, tinkered with, even after it’s hanging ready for exhibition. In another wonderfully astute scene we see Turner apparently sabotage one of his paintings to irk his rival and contemporary John Constable; the red daub of paint he so casually applies to his serene seascape, Helvoetsluys, turns out to be a final detail that enhances it while detracting from Constable’s own, more rigidly composed painting of the opening of Waterloo Bridge hanging alongside it.

It’s a technique Leigh himself uses again and again, capturing little improvised grace notes in his casts’ performances that enhance our understanding of Turner without needing to explicate it through dialogue. In this he’s aided by a remarkable turn from Spall whose virtuosic performance is so lived it becomes both an inextricable part of the British cultural and social landscape that Leigh’s film is illuminating and the striking daub of colour that transforms it into great art.

Nightcrawler (15)

Director: Dan Gilroy

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton

***

Think of our newscast as a screaming woman, running down the street with her throat cut,” says Rene Russo’s veteran producer Nina Romina in this shout-it-from-the-rooftops satire about tabloid TV news journalism and our complicity in its fear-mongering agenda. The recipient of this advice is Jake Gyllenhaal’s gonzo cameraman, a self-starting vulture by the name of Lou Bloom whose recent discovery of the 24-hour news cycle’s insatiable bloodlust has brought him to Nina’s door with some amateurishly shot but provocatively explicit crime scene footage.

An amoral creep, Bloom’s a quick study, so it’s not long before he’s taking Nina’s comments to heart, his disconnection enabling him to get up close and increasingly personal with the criminals and dead bodies he’s out to document for cash and professional prestige. Combined with his wholesale belief in the self-improvement bilge he’s been absorbing from the internet, Bloom’s new sense of purpose is developing into a twisted sociopathic credo celebrating personal growth at the expense of everyone else. Writer/director Dan Gilroy wastes no time equating this with a corporate mentality that has normalised exploitation to such a degree that nobody notices or protests too much – even when they’re the ones falling victim to it. That’s a good, juicy theme for a modern thriller, and the film manages to capitalise on the harsh beauty of its nocturnal, LED-lit LA locations to add an appropriately sleazy edge to proceedings (Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit shot it). Unfortunately Nightcrawler doesn’t actually have much to say in the end, serving up the same finger-wagging observations about compromised ethics and falling standards that have been a staple of media movies from Medium Cool to Network to Broadcast News. The medium’s still the message, in other words, only the message of Nightcrawler seems to be that building a film around an antihero prone to sensationalising reality is a cool excuse for staging an elaborate car chase in a nifty new way (said car chase is pretty impressive, though).

As for Gyllenhaal, he proves a weirdly distracting presence. From the moment he emerges from the shadows, gaunt and ghoulish, his face frozen in a demented rictus, he spends the entire movie drawing attention to his performance instead of disappearing into his character. Comprised of bug-eyed ticks and tricks, it’s all surface and he’s not skilled enough to make that kind of shallowness feel intentional – even in a film that quickly succumbs to the “if it bleeds, it leads” fervour it’s pretending to condemn.