|Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner.|
The English writer-director Mike Leigh is a caricaturist by bent whose famous collaborative process with his actors (which begins with improvisation) allows them to inhabit those caricatures – to make them experiential. He’s the closest any filmmaker has come to approximating Dickens, though his complex tone and the peculiar loving gruffness of his humor are distinctly contemporary. I love most of his movies, but when he applies his approach to nineteenth-century British subjects what he comes up with is truly wondrous. His 1999 Topsy-Turvy, about Gilbert and Sullivan and the first production of The Mikado, is simultaneously a dazzlingly detailed chronicle of theatrical creation (I think it’s the finest backstage movie ever made) and a profound study of the Victorian temperament comparable only, perhaps, to David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and Dennis Potter and Gavin Millar’s brilliant (and almost unknown) Dreamchild. In his new movie, Mr. Turner – which looks at the most celebrated and productive period in the life of the great (and remarkably prolific) painter J.M.W. Turner, who died in 1851 – Leigh uses his own pebbled, off-side style for an impressionistic effect that matches it up with Turner’s style, which anticipated impressionism and, in his late canvases, took on an abstract quality that (as Leigh’s movie shows) alienated audiences that had embraced his work for years. In Mr. Turner, an idiosyncratic master filmmaker reaches out to an artist from an earlier epoch and finds common ground. That’s what happened when Robert Altman took on Van Gogh in 1990 in Vincent and Theo. In both cases the eye of a gifted contemporary director fixes on the radical element that makes these painters’ work seem so startlingly modern. With Altman’s Van Gogh and Leigh’s Turner, you feel that their experiments were so ahead of their time that we’re still racing to catch up with them.