Life in its Minutiae: Timothy Spall and Mike Leigh’s MR. TURNER

by Gregory Scharpen

It’s a little peculiar to start off a discussion of Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner by invoking Amir Bar-Lev’s recent documentary about Penn State football, Happy Valley . However, in a recent (admittedly somewhat freewheeling and wide-ranging) conversation with Bar-Lev, the notion of the “takeaway” of a film came up. And he brought up Mr. Turner , a film he greatly enjoyed, noting, “You walk out of that movie, and you say, ‘I don’t even know what the movie was about.’ I don’t even know if I could say… I can’t give you a ‘takeaway’ about the movie.” And that lack of a reductive quality isn’t necessarily bad; he continued: “I’m not after takeaways. I’m after characters, basically, acting true to form, because there’s something about that that feels like, in some ineffable kind of way, you’re talking about life. And there’s something edifying about that.”

Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in Mr. Turner (Photo by Simon Mein.)

Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in Mr. Turner (Photo by Simon Mein.)

Bar-Lev was turning the conversation back to the documentary he’d directed, but a better summation of Mr. Turner would be hard to find. Timothy Spall, a familiar face to those acquainted with Leigh’s filmography, plays the British painter J. M. W. Turner as the film charts the final twenty-five years of his life. Personally, Spall is one of the pantheon of actors I’ll see in pretty much anything. Here, he’s given center stage to create, with Leigh, the emotional life of Turner from the ground up, using the director’s by-now famous improvisatory approach to development. “You have many times where you’re doing improvisations in real time, in costume, on the rehearsal sets,” Spall says, elaborating Leigh’s process. “Not under any pressure to come up with anything dramatic, just discovering how these people go about their business, on a mundane, boring, day-to-day level.”


Portrait of J.M.W. Turner by Cornelius Varley.


Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999).

And, though there are, naturally, scenes and events in the film, crafted by the dramatist Leigh out of the crucible of the improvisations and the historical research, there is something of a sense while you’re watching it that Nothing Happens—more so in this film than other Mike Leigh films. Which makes a kind of sense: the only other Leigh film which draws from a historical set of circumstances is Topsy-Turvy , which has the built-in narrative device of the creation of a piece of theatre, The Mikado . All Leigh’s other devised narratives aren’t beholden to actual events, and the natural impulse to create a story (albeit loose in some cases) kicks in in those films; Mr. Turner , biographical as it is, cleaves to a pretty pure idea of characters simply navigating their way through the vagaries of their weeks and months and years. And Spall (unsurprisingly) shares my enthusiasm for the end result: “That is Mike Leigh at his best. He loves the majesty of the mundane. He loves investigating how people ply their trade, how they live their life in its minutiae, and how they just get on with life.”


Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in Mr. Turner (Photo by Simon Mein.)

“The great thing about working on late Georgian, early Victorian, or Victorian characters is there’s a massive amount of information about what they looked like, and how they were, but very little about what they felt, and what they did privately. Because, if they were up to things—as we do see in this film—of a sexual nature, or an unusual nature, they certainly didn’t advertise it. And what liberated us with Turner, was that he was a very, very private man. I think what obviously initially interested Mike Leigh about this character, was that if you took a broad backward look at [Turner’s paintings] and thought: Right. Who created that? And the person that was revealing itself to us as we created it and used it, was fantastically obviously not the person you would immediately assume…”

Spall pauses for a moment, and then frames the question, pointing metaphorically from the character of Turner to his body of work: “How could that create that ? And what proved at first to be a barrier, which was a mass of contradictions that were presenting themselves about this man, rather than finding it frustrating—which it was!—we decided to go with it, and we realized that the point of the man was that he was a mass of contradictions. And we used that—rather than fighting it, we used it.”

Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in Mr. Turner (Photo by Simon Mein.)

Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in Mr. Turner  .(Photo by Simon Mein.)

Another strangely compelling aspect of Mr. Turner is that, during large swaths of the film, Turner is an observer of rather than an actor in the world, whether the world in question is landscapes or human interactions. And when he is interacting with the world, it’s either gruffly, monosyllabically, or a-syllabically. “People often ask why does he communicate 50% of the time in a series of noises,” Spall notes. Then, after the briefest of pauses to compose an amused recollection, he continues with a chuckle and derision that only over-analysis can merit: “Somebody evidently sat down—somebody with too much time on their hands—and did a lexicography of the meaning of each one! And there’s 140 different meanings, evidently.”

“What we were investigating in him as a human being emotionally, was this implosive person, this person who saw, and felt things, and sucked them into himself.” Making reference to Turner’s reported last words, “The sun is God,” Spall reflects, “I discovered something quite interesting about the sun. The sun has a hole in its side. And the way it powers our Earth and all of the planets around it, and is our main source of energy, is in a constant state of self-destruction. It’s always sucking itself into itself. It’s destroying itself. To give us the power that it does. And in a weird way, I think Turner had that quality, this implosive, bring it in, bringing it in, feeling it, holding it in, and it really… it’s through that constriction that out of the end of his arm, via the paintbrush, comes the explosion that you see in front of you, his work.”


Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in Mr. Turner  . (Photo by Simon Mein.)

The resulting film may in fact be my favorite Leigh film, and I may not be alone in that; which partially explains why—to jump back somewhat unceremoniously to Bar-Lev—a little further on in an interview purportedly about Happy Valley and Penn State, Mr. Turner pops up again, this time during a discussion of narrative drive. Bar-Lev tries to grapple with the effect the film has: “It’s such a great film. There’s a reason why nothing happening in that film works. And I don’t know that that’s translatable to non-fiction.” He pauses, and then adds as a somewhat unrelated aside: “Feature films, people say, ‘Oh, it’s so naturalistic, it felt like a documentary!’ That’s praise for a feature film. And then, for documentaries, the praise is, It felt like a feature film!’ If nonfiction acts like fiction, then people like it, and if fiction acts like nonfiction, then people like it.”

Mr. Turner doesn’t, in fact, feel like a documentary, for all its verisimilitude. If anything, it resembles Boyhood in the sense that it’s a stroll alongside this set of characters for a space of years, an almost participatory engagement that invites one to live life with the people on the screen, in all the delights, respites, crushing sorrows, and idylls that form the range of the very mundane, humble, and ecstatic human experience.

(The interview with Timothy Spall was conducted with KALX Film Close-Upsco-host, Sonia Mistry.)

SpallTopsyTurvyGregory Scharpen is a Berkeley-based documentary film editor, co-host of KALX 90.7fm’s weekly cinema program Film Close-Ups (every Saturday from 5:30pm-6:30pm), and remains an unabashed Anglophile, at least with regards to movies, theatre, and music.


Mr. Turner is playing now at Embarcadero Center Cinema and the Kabuki in San Francisco and opens Friday, January 9 at the Albany Twin in Albany and the Rafael in San Rafael.

Click here to read Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco director Colin B. Bailey’s review of Mr. Turner.

Click here to see variety of Timothy Spall interview and film clips.

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