As Mike Leigh‘s new film “Mr. Turner” reveals, famous British painter J.M.W. Turner was an infamous human being. Even though he was widely perceived to be a refined aristocrat of the early 19th century, he was also vulgar, selfish and cruel. Hollywood biopics usually paint their subjects in heroic light, but the only place you’ll find a golden glow in “Mr. Turner” is around the signature sunsets and burning Parliament buildings so celebrated in his paintings.
Why does Leigh risk turning off moviegoers by delivering such a brutally harsh portrayal of the artist in “Mr. Turner”?
“It’s not in my nature to do that,” Leigh tells Gold Derby editor Tom O’Neil in their podcast chat. (Tune in below.) “I couldn’t do that if I wanted to, really. I’m not Hollywood. It’s an independent European film. It’s got nothing to do with Hollywood.” Listen to their audio podcast below.
In the past, Leigh has asserted that Turner was a moral man, but O’Neil challenges that opinion by referring to scenes in the film that show Turner abusing his housekeeper for sexual release and refusing to acknowledge his illegitimate daughters by a different woman.
“I think aspects of him are moral and aspects of him aren’t,” Leigh concedes. “I think he’s a complex character. For me, the job is to put on the screen a human being in all his complexities, and not to point the audience to a simplistic conclusion of a black and white nature. People should take away from the film stuff to think about, to argue about and to ponder.”
Leigh also reveals that Timothy Spall was his first choice to play the title character. “He seemed the right man. He is a great character actor and I’ve worked with him lots of times. He’s a Londoner, which is a good thing, as Turner was a Londoner. He’s sort of a working-class background and I knew he would get the grain of this character.”
Regarding Spall’s dedication to the role, Leigh says, “He had some pretensions I knew to drawing and painting, [so] we sent him off for two years to learn painting properly with an artist teacher.”
And what does Leigh think made Turner a great artist? “Well, he could see. He was perceptive. He had this extraordinary way of capturing and transcending and disseminating the world in a pretty unique way, really. He could draw and paint from a very early age. The other thing about him is he was remarkably diligent and hard-working. The amount of stuff he produced is enormous.”
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