Mr. Turner: A Perfect Film

The English writer-director Mike Leigh is one of the most humane filmmakers. His movies are less seen than they should be, and it’s an occasion of genuine joy that he has a new one. Mr. Turner, the biographical portrait of the great English artist, is something very rare – I think it might be a perfect film.

I emerged from my first viewing, heart full, mind stimulated, feeling as if I had just been in mid-19th century England. I had seen a work of uncommon beauty, not showy or pretentious (indeed one of the themes of the film is the pretentiousness of the art world among proponents, purchasers, and painters alike). I had been met by one of the great cinematic performances, in Timothy Spall’s full-bodied immersion as a man touched by transcendent genius on the canvas, tenderness with some people, and inexplicable callousness toward others. This is a real life, fully rounded, and induces both the laughter and tears of recognition that each of us gets to choose what to do with our gifts, but will face the temptation to be selfish in their manifestation.

A few weeks ago, Leigh made a speech thanking the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for bestowing him with their highest honor. The speech was as humane, as in love with the possibilities of art to help us understand ourselves better as his greatest films – in addition to Mr. Turner, Secrets and Lies, Naked, All Or Nothing, Happy-Go-Lucky, and Topsy-Turvy being, for me, chief among them. The speech was also as wiling to slice through bluster and cynicism as his characters – Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, who doesn’t have a dehumanizing bone in her body, and takes everyone on good faith; Johnny in Naked, broken and selfish, but understanding how power corrupts, and perhaps most notably, Maurice in Secrets and Lies who cuts to the heart of the matter with the words, “There are things you know nothing about.” (Sally Hawkins, David Thewlis, and Timothy Spall all matured as actors under Mike Leigh’s paternal eye. And they’ve never been better than when working with him.)

What he said at the award ceremony is worth quoting at length, because it sketches a manifesto of what it is to embody the purpose of art: to create, in community, work that will help us live better, and to do it free from interference from the powers that be, who will often be the focus of the artistic challenge:

How lucky we all are to happen to have been born in this magical age of cinema… To be able to capture life and to share with it audiences, not to mention the joy of the camera and sound and the craft and technology, it is glorious, isn’t it?…I am truly grateful … for … this … sign of your respect for an off beat, alternative original idiosyncratic personal kind of popular cinema. An independent cinema. What is an independent film? It is a film that has been made free from all censorship or interference by governments, backers, producers, script editors, or committees of any kind. It is a film made with the same genuine freedom as enjoyed by novelists, dramatists, poets, painters sculptors, song writers and other artists.

I have been extraordinarily lucky over the years. I have made 20 full length films all starting without a script and none of them has ever been interfered with by anybody at any time. Had that not been the case, I would not be standing here now. So thank you … to everybody I have ever worked with on both sides of the camera, in production and in post production…Many times we have gone to potential backers and we have said, there is no script, no story, no casting, we can’t tell you what it is about, just give us the money. And they may have said: great, here is the dosh, make the film or they have told us to get lost. So, to those backers who said yes,… a big loving thank you. But to those boneheads, philistines and uninspired skinflints who said no, a big thank you to you too. For had you said yes, you would have interfered with the movie, insisted on inappropriate casting, changed the story, you would have screwed up the editing and generally made a pig’s ear of the whole thing. So to you lot, thank you for keeping away and may you all rot in hell. – Mike Leigh

I love the twinkle in Leigh’s eye and the delight in his voice at the end of this speech – he knows where he stands, and that in the twilight of his career (he’s only four years younger than Turner when he died), he has stayed true to himself. Like Turner, he has been a misunderstood artist – there’s huge metacontextual laughter to be had in the scene in Mr. Turner where the artist is bored by John Ruskin, the most famous critic of his time. Ruskin wants to talk about how one artist is better than another and why; Turner’s response is both hilarious and smart, and good advice to those of us who sometimes confuse critical thought with merely criticizing: he asks Ruskin if he prefers one kind of pie to another. Leigh is saying, I think, that there’s no point comparing one work of art with another, but that each can only be taken on its own terms; and also that despite Cannes Film Festival victories and highbrow acclaim, he’s still a man of the people whose films belong to the world, not the academy. (He’s taking another leaf out of Turner’s book here – the artist turned down enormous sums of money to bequeath his work to the nation.)

And yet, amidst his genius for making paintings that are almost as exquisite as the landscapes themselves, and certainly show us the depth of that exquisiteness, Turner also left a legacy of deeply wounded relationships. The challenge in Mr. Turner is to all creative people, artists and critics alike: how to make art that helps us live better, how to talk about that art in a way that does the same thing, and how to nurture creative communities that will enable artists to embody the thing they are trying to encourage in others. I think it’s a perfect film. But I could be wrong. I’m not sure how much it matters, either way. What matters is that I saw a film last night that made me want to be a better human being.

Gareth Higgins is the Founding Director of Movies and Meaning, a weekly newsletter and upcoming festival decicated to finding and featuring only the most meaningful of movies. Keep up with him by frequentling his personal website.