Last night in Hollywood I was treated to a Screen Actor’s Guild showing of “Mr. Turner”, the biopic about eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner, with the additional surprise of an appearance by the film’s star, Timothy Spall. You might not know the name offhand, but that face will be very familiar to Anglophiles. He has over one hundred and twenty eight film and television credits. You may have seen him in everything from the Harry Potter films (Wormtail), classic Dickens adaptations, to one of my favorites, the 1998 rock and roll film”Still Crazy”. Spall finally gets a film that is completely his to show us how incredibly talented he is, and yet, how without ego he appears on screen.
I really want you to go and see this film, so you won’t get the “book report” version from this post, just encouragement to see it! It’s long, but never boring and never rings false. I have haunted British museums for decades but didn’t know much about J.M.W. Turner as a person. I used to get him mixed up with Constable, but no more. That’s what a good biopic does. I felt immersed in Turner’s world. The acting was wonderful overall and I never felt yanked out of this world by anachronism.
According to Mr. Spall, in 2000 director, Mike Leigh asked him if he would be interested in doing a film on Turner in a few years. Mr. Spall has worked on and off with Mike Leigh for over thirty years, and was eager to work with him again. Mike Leigh suggested that Spall might use the years before production began to learn how to paint. After ascertaining that Leigh wasn’t kidding, Spall went to work and immersed himself. His painting on screen shows the confidence and technical knowledge he has amassed. His painting technique reached the level where he was able to successfully copy a real Turner! He said the copy now hangs in his home. He’s left off painting since then and he doesn’t believe he could ever paint like that again. Lucky for us that he prefers acting!
Spall who was the winner the winner of the Best Actor prize this year at The Cannes International Film Festival, told the group about the exciting collaborative process of working with director Mike Leigh, taking the facts and pieces of Turner that are known, using imagination for the rest, making the character seamless and eventually letting the character take over. When that happens, he said, you don’t worry about close ups or angles because you are living it and letting the camera catch it as it can. When that happens to an actor, it is absolute magic for the audience. Spall doesn’t worry about looking like a movie star on film. He is Turner with all his brilliance, all his faults, all his beauty and all his vulgarity. One of his lines from the film is “When I look in the mirror, I see a gargoyle”, yet in the playful scenes with his elderly father played by the fabulous Paul Jesson, you see Turner’s sweetness and rough little boy charm. Dorothy Atkinson rounds out the Turner household as their long suffering housekeeper who tugs at your emotions with her loyalty.
Spall takes non-verbal communication to a whole new level in his portrayal of J.M.W. Turner in”Mr. Turner”. He grunts and snorts and snarls his way through many of the scenes as he portrays this working class art hero. He also confessed to having visited Turner’s grave at St. Paul’s Cathedral a few times and “had a word” while pretending to tie his shoe. At first, he asked for Turner’s blessing. The last time, he told us, he left a tear of gratitude behind. When Spall appeared, elegantly dressed down to his 1851 (the year of Turner’s death) pocket watch and chain, to a standing ovation after the film screening to our group of SAG members he was humble, gracious, and inspiring and funny while talking about his work. He said he never thought he brought his work home with him, until the time he was asked that question…with his wife of thirty-three years sitting next to him, she answered “yes” at the same he was saying “no”, so he’s revised his ideas.
Anglophiles will also see many other familiar faces including a silent but telling cameo of Ruby Bentall (Lark Rise, The Paradise) and Lee Ingleby (Inspector George Gently) as a silent, couple in the midst of their own drama. Excellent acting, history, costumes, characters I’ve only read about weaving their way through the film, gorgeous British scenery, stately homes, nineteenth century London in all it’s glory squalor —and the seaside all made for one happy Anglophile! Go see “Mr. Turner” and tell me what you think!
Lady Elyse Ashton