Saturday, January 10, 2015

Styles and Stylists: Mike Leigh’s Turner, Tim Burton’s Keane

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.

Like Altman, Leigh likes to call on a wide and shifting stock company of actors, and many familiar faces show up here. Timothy Spall, who takes the title role in Mr. Turner, has given memorable performances in a number of Leigh’s previous pictures, especially All or Nothing and Topsy-Turvy (where he played Richard Temple, the actor Gilbert cast as the Mikado). But his portrayal of Billy Turner is the best thing he’s ever done. The character is a series of contradictions – and surprises. He’s brusque and willful, and sometimes his chilliness can be shocking. He has an ongoing sexual liaison with his domestic, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson, who played Jessie Bond in Topsy-Turvy). She adores him, but he’s distanced and erratic with his affections. And when he begins to spend less and less time in the London home she keeps for him, she has to find out on her own that he’s moved in with a Margate widow named Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), whom he has rented a room from on occasion when his work took him to that location. (The two actresses are simply marvelous.) He has two daughters with a woman named Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), but though he gives her an allowance, he has nothing to do with her or with them. (There’s an uproarious scene where she shows up at his studio and demands his attention, which he refuses to grant her.) He tells people that he’s childless, and when one of the daughters dies, he doesn’t even attend her funeral.

Dorothy Atkinson in Mr. Turner.
Yet his relationships with Sophia and with his father (Paul Jesson), a retired barber – the finest in Covent Garden, his son boasts – are very warm ones, and his courtship of the former and his concern for the latter’s failing health are touching and sweet. When Turner Sr. dies, Billy is devastated. (On his death bed, the old man worries over his treatment of Billy’s mother, then the two men agree that she was a bitch and a lunatic who made their life hell, and they laugh merrily. W.S. Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy, played by Jim Broadbent, also has an estranged mother and shares a camaraderie with his dad that’s built partly on their mutual dislike of her.) Billy doesn’t talk about his grief, but he carries it around with him; it becomes a thread in the melancholy that never quite deserts him and that has its origins in the death of his sister in childhood. The only people he ever talks to about this and other losses are Sophia and, when he first rents from her, her husband (Karl Johnson), a retired sea captain whose bitter reminiscence of helming a slave ship (“Changed my life, it did. Sent me back to chapel,” he confides) encourages Billy – in a strange, plaintive moment – to recall two close friends who died of scrofula. (Captain Booth dies between the first time Sophia is his landlady and the second, a few years later.)

Leigh and Spall also give us a peek at Turner’s professional relationships. The painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (the superlative Martin Savage, who played the drug-addled leading man George Grossmith in Topsy-Turvy) is perpetually low on funds and touches Billy for loans; he doesn’t get as much as he asks for, and Billy’s impatient with him, but he doesn’t desert Haydon. In truth, everyone has grown impatient with Haydon, whose work is mediocre and gets hung, in his words, in the “inferior chamber” of the Royal Academy of Arts. Haydon, recently released from debtors’ prison, wears his misfortune as a badge of honor, and he thrives on making scenes. The always-welcome Lesley Manville (Gilbert’s wife Kitty in Topsy-Turvy) appears briefly as Mary Somerville, a Scots scientist and mathematician who’s also an amateur painter and comes by Turner’s studio to conduct an experiment with violet light. Somerville, one of the first women admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society, doesn’t consider herself a real painter, but Turner insists that she’s a fine watercolorist; he’s friendlier to her, and more solicitous, than he is with most of his colleagues in the Royal Academy.

In Vincent and Theo, Tim Roth’s Van Gogh is so difficult to live with that you couldn’t imagine him being welcomed into a community of artists even if his work had been recognized in his lifetime; he courts social rejection. Spall’s Turner is an established member of the community of London painters, and we see him in the company of his fellow artists, but his temperament – ornery, mercurial, prone to bouts of depression – as well as his impulse toward experimentation mark him as an outlier at the same time. The scene at the Royal Academy is hilarious. Turner strides in, exchanges a fond salutation with the architect Sir John Soane (Nicholas Jones) but a grunted, barely polite one with John Constable (James Fleet), marches up to one of his own marine paintings on display and applies a burst of red just above the water, then strides out again. The gesture causes considerable consternation and debate among the other painters, most of whom think he’s ruined his own masterpiece; John Carew (Niall Buggy) laughs at the outrageousness of the action; Constable, deeply unsettled, announces, “He’s been here and he’s fired a gun!” A moment later Turner reappears, smudges the red blot with his thumb, and carefully removes the residue below the water line. The result is breathtaking, and you want to applaud the theatricality of this public display of eccentric technique. In the same scene, he spits on another painting and rubs the saliva in with his brush, getting precisely the response from his colleagues that you might expect.

The only sour note in the movie’s depiction of the London art scene is the scene where Turner and some other painters visit the young critic John Ruskin at his father’s house. Joshua McGuire plays Ruskin as a vain dilettante, an embodiment of a petted, overfed aristocracy, passing dubious judgments from on high, and though Ruskin may well have had those traits, Leigh’s satirical treatment of him doesn’t acknowledge the sustaining significance of his contributions.

Timothy Spall, David Horovitch and Martin Savage in Mr. Turner.
Leigh tells Turner’s story – and especially the story of his art – in a series of glimpses, sketches, like the scene with Mary Somerville, where his interest in the scientific side of painting – in color theory – recalls both Teller’s 2013 documentary Tim’s Vermeer, where an inventor reconstructs Vermeer’s scientific process, and, inevitably, the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical Sunday in the Park with George, about Seurat inventing pointillism. “Color is contradictory,” Billy tells Somerville, and if you’ve had the sublime experience of roaming through the Turner rooms at the Tate Modern in London, you know what he means. One of the docents in Frederick Wiseman’s remarkable new documentary National Gallery makes the point to her audience that realism is deceptive because the deeper you look in a realist painting the more abstract it becomes, but though Turner’s canvases sit right on the cusp between realism and abstraction, they operate in the opposite way: the more closely you peer into one that seems utterly mysterious and unreadable, the more you recognize of the real world. He doesn’t begin with verisimilitude, but he gets there, just as he does when he stains the painting at the National Academy with that odd crimson squiggle that at first looks like a graffito.

The National Academy sequence is one of just a handful of scenes in which Leigh focuses on one of Turner’s paintings. What he does more strikingly, working with his cinematographer, Dick Pope, and his production designer, Suzie Davis, is to recreate Turner’s work by showing us what Turner saw – as he sketches a windmill and two maidens in old-fashioned triangular bonnets in a Dutch landscape in the opening scene; when he observes a snowstorm at sea from the prow of a ship (the captain ties him to the mast) or a passing train, spouting steam (which produces Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway in 1844); or when he and some friends, rowing down the Thames in a scull, take a last look at the Temeraire before the Royal Navy junks the grand old warrior ship (The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up, 1839). When Billy, just back from an excursion, walks into his studio in the first minutes of the film, the light outside the large picture windows is muted and what we see through it is snowy white, like a canvas that hasn’t yet taken shape. The movie, which also has magnificent costumes by Jacqueline Durran, is breathtaking to look at. (And it has a beautiful score by Gary Yershon that feels classical but is sometimes used for expressionistic effects – another contradiction.) In one scene, while some of the painters gossip about Benjamin Haydon, Leigh shoots him walking farther and farther into the distance until he becomes a tiny figure in a landscape. Leigh employs deep focus here to achieve a painterly effect. The art of film intersects with the art of landscape painting, and Leigh and Turner seem to hail each other across the centuries.

Amy Adams as Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes.

Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, which is set mostly in the Bay Area in the late fifties and sixties, has a wonderful chalk-pastel look that isn’t quite like anything I’ve seen before (Bruno Delbonnel shot it). And for a while Amy Adams gives the character of Margaret Keane, née Ulbrich – whose scam-artist husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) took credit for her paintings of saucer-eyed children – an impressive range of emotional shadings. You can see this woman, who has run away from a bad marriage in Nashville with her little girl Jane (Delaney Raye and later Madeleine Arthur) in tow, slowly lose her sense of self as Walter takes control of her life. But the cinematography and the early part of Adams’s performance are the only parts of Big Eyes that aren’t an unqualified disaster.

I’m always rooting for Burton. I didn’t find his last two movies, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows, as irredeemably bad as most people seem to have; I thought both contained funny bits, and Johnny Depp’s comic performances in both were, on and off, pretty inspired. But except for his animated pictures, Corpse Bride and the extended version of his short Frankenweenie, Burton hasn’t made a good movie since Big Fish in 2003. He needs one desperately, but God knows Big Eyes isn’t it. And I can’t imagine what would have made him think that Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s script ever could have worked. It’s not just that the dialogue is hopelessly bald and awkward; the movie runs on two tracks at the same time that lead in such obviously different directions that it winds up splitting down the middle. On the one hand there’s the creepy story about a woman whose life becomes an escalating terror as she first permits her husband to become famous off her work and then discovers that he’s a sociopath who’s lied about everything else, too, since the day he met her. You can imagine what the Hitchcock of the fifties the would have done with that idea, or Brian De Palma. But then there’s the other story about how a snake-oil salesman like Walter Keane markets his wife’s kitsch so that it becomes fantastically popular all over the world, not to art cognoscenti but to middlebrow audiences who buy it in mass-generated reproductions. That story, which features an amusing Terence Stamp as the truth-telling New York Times art critic John Canaday, can’t share the screen with the one in which Margaret says things like “These children are a part of my being” and triumphs in court by proving that the paintings are hers, because her belief in the integrity of those soupy, sappy child figures makes her look like an idiot. The only way to make this material work, I think, would be to turn it into a picture about a Margaret Keane-like character who has to fight to get back the soul her husband has stolen from her and leave the real Keane canvases out of it altogether.

Burton’s approach to the awful script is to play it so broadly that you can’t figure out whether or not you’re supposed to laugh at it. (As a North Beach gallery owner who looks down on both the Paris street scenes Walter tries to sell him at first and the “big eyes” paintings that make him rich and famous, Jason Schwartzman, in a goatee and a pointed mustache, acts exactly as if he were in a Wes Anderson comedy.) Burton is a surrealist, and I guess he thought that surrealism might work on this wacky narrative – as it might if it were De Palma’s nightmarish brand and not Burton’s comic-book one. He must have hoped that surrealism would make some kind of sense out of Christoph Waltz’s preposterously hammy performance. But nothing could; everything about him is dead wrong from the moment he opens his mouth. He tries to slur over his Austrian accent, but he doesn’t even come close – you keep waiting for someone to ask him, “So, Walter, where are you from?” Burton has to find a property that will lift him out of his depressing slump, and he’s such a specialized director that it can’t be easy. But really, he needs smarter script readers.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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