LONDON – For more than a decade, filmmaker Mike Leigh wanted to make a movie about J. M. W. Turner, the supremely talented and cantankerous 19th-century painter. In Mr Turner, discovers Robert Bound, the director has brilliantly realised his vision of Britain’s greatest artist as a force of nature.

Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner is an artist, sure, but he’s also a craftsman, a tradesman, a builder of paintings. Mr Turner rolls up his sleeves, spits on the canvas, rubs brown dust into the wet paint; Mr Turner is sweaty of brow, gruff of pronouncement, occasionally hot for his housekeeper (only a distant relative) and Mr Turner is as bewitching on screen, as played by Timothy Spall, as J.M.W. Turner’s work was brilliant and prescient.

“Well, as a practising artist – and there are those of us that do it and have craft – we all roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty,” says Mike Leigh from a hearthside armchair in the Soho offices of his Thin Man Films, “irrespective of the spiritual profundity we may or may not achieve.” 

TURNER'S ROME, FROM MOUNT AVENTINE WAS EXHIBITED AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY IN 1836 AND IS ONE OF THE ARTIST'S BEST PRESERVED LATE WORKS. IT WILL BE OFFERED IN SOTHEBY'S DECEMBER SALE OF OLD MASTER AND BRITISH PAINTINGS IN LONDON. ESTIMATE £15–20 MILLION.

With an arched eyebrow and a typically epigrammatic qualification, Leigh sets out how an artist – a director or a painter – works. And he’s good at talking about Turner, one of his favourite painters, “the reason, after all, that I’ve been talking about making a Turner film for over a decade now.” 

Mr Turner focuses on the artist’s later life, during which he spent fewer days in London and more weeks painting on the coast. In the Kent town of Margate ships and landscapes, details and colours were fused in his work, to become the paintings that would anticipate Impressionism and prove Turner to be the great genius who bestrode 19th-century British art like a brusque, grunting Colossus (at least in Leigh’s film). 

When we say Mr Turner “focuses” on anything. Just how much should a film about a painter attempt to be pin-sharp and how much should it adopt their style? “I did sit down and watch pretty much all the films about painters that there are and it’s surprising how little you see of them painting,” says Leigh. “It’s more in the detail, and I love detail. I want to know what you had for breakfast.” Leigh and Spall did a huge amount of research, reading about and around their subject and looking at his works. The Tate was the mothership as the research team grew. “The Turner Bequest people at the Clore Gallery were incredibly helpful, we looked at everything,” says Leigh. “Dick Pope [the cinematographer] could go down there to look at palettes and sketches to get colours just right, the prop buyers and costume people were in there, it was enormous fun.” Coincidentally, until January of next year Tate Britain will be hosting Late Turner – Painting Set Free, uniting an array of works from the United Kingdom and abroad covering exactly the period explored by this film.

turner-still-full-width(Top and Above) Stills from the film, to be released on 31 October in the UK and 19 December in the US. Photograph by Simon Mein.

While Mr Turner was shot digitally (the film-or-digital question caused “enormous debate,” says Leigh), old lenses – the same ones that David Lean used to shoot Lawrence of Arabia, in fact — were used with new technology to achieve the look that Leigh and Pope desired. “When it comes to a period film, I want to be as meticulous with everything as I would on a Naked or a Secrets & Lies,” Leigh says. “One of the things that I feel strongly about is the dumb things that go on with period dramas, where people say ‘let’s modify the language or people won’t understand it,’ or people say ‘why put all the girls in these corsets?’ It puts it all in an implausible no man’s land that’s neither fish nor fowl.” Only then, and of course by looking at the character’s domestic routines, manners and foibles – classic Mike Leigh, you might say – do you understand the essence of Turner and are able to go with him on his journey in the film.

turner-mike-leighMike Leigh, director of Mr Turner.

Can you know too much? “No, you research and absorb and it goes into your bloodstream and then you’re equipped to create with a solid understanding of the world you’re dealing with,” says Leigh, as if to question rigour is an insult. “Although in the end you can read a million books and do any amount of research, that doesn’t make a character or things happen in front of the camera; here we are actually finding a way of breathing life into stuff that we choose to dramatise that actually happened,” he says, before adding impishly, “of course you reach a point where you go, ‘I can’t read any more of this.’ Even I’ve got a limit!”

How does Spall’s Turner paint? As a force of nature in a frock coat. Do not expect Mr Turner to contain apocryphal moments of creation, though. Turner does spot the Royal Navy’s Temeraire coming into dock while on a boat trip with his mates and agrees with their call that the ship is a good subject for a picture, but Leigh is as straight as his Turner might be on the myth of genesis. “Any sanitised, genteel notion of paintings just appearing out of some spiritual, clairvoyant flash is just nonsense really,” he says. And, since he is celebrating the artist who turned down a mega-bucks offer from a pen-nib manufacturer in order that his paintings would be given to the nation and seen by the world for free, Leigh saves a final word for collectors: “Is everything you’ve got to hang on your wall [on] the wall or is it in a cupboard?” he asks. “Well, exactly – it’s the same with collectors, but on a more expensive scale when you have to put it in a vault,” says Leigh, “but it’s still indefensible.”

Robert Bound is Culture Editor of Monocle.