Timothy Spall and director Mike Leigh (“Secrets & Lies,” “Vera Drake”) appeared at a press conference at the 2014 New York Film Festival to talk about their new film, “Mr Turner,” which depicts the latter part of 19th century British painter, J.M.W. Turner’s life. They were joined by cinematographer Dick Pope and actresses Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Ruth Sheen, and Sandy Foster.
I was interested in this film because I discovered Turner’s work at the Tate Gallery in London while in college and fell in love with his paintings. I didn’t know anything about him, though, until seeing the movie, for which everyone involved did a great deal of research.
The film lasts 2-1/2 hours and is probably not for the mainstream film-goer, but for those interested in Turner or the time period, it will be an interesting and entertaining experience. There is plenty of both comedy and pathos in the story, and the man who influenced and set the stage for the impressionist art period is certainly a study in contradictions.
Below are some of the highlights from the press conference.
Timothy Spall on playing the character of J.M.W. Turner:
His physicality, his earthiness, and his visceralness, and awkwardness as a man in conjunction with this beautiful, fantastic, sublime work was a very interesting thing to delve into.
Timothy Spall on learning how to paint for the film:
I spent 2-1/2 years learning how to paint. So, I got quite heavily into the whole process of that, and I was taught by a brilliant guy, a portraitist and teacher who took me through all the disciplines up to the point where I was able to do a full-sized copy of a Turner painting…. I couldn’t do it again, but I managed to do it then.
Dorothy Atkinson on the information available about her character, Hannah Danby, who was Turner’s maidservant:
There was very little information about her. We knew that she had served him [Turner] for 40 years and that they knew each other really well…. We knew that she had a skin condition, and she frightened people when she answered the door to let people in. But that was really it.
Mike Leigh on the character of John Ruskin, a well-known 19th century art critic, who was portrayed comically in the film by the wonderful Joshua McGuire:
A distinguished French film critic, whom some of you probably know, took great offense at the portrait of Ruskin when we showed the film at Cannes because he thought it was an attack on critics in general. And since we are at this august gathering, that is not the case….
[Ruskin] was a kind of prick … Turner kind of tolerated him and took the piss out of him…. It just seemed a good idea to make Ruskin into a comic character.
Mike Leigh on period films and his approach to the time period in “Mr. Turner”:
I feel very strongly – this is about period films just in general – that sometimes, such films suffer from a feeling that somehow, they’ve got to be tempered for a contemporary audience, that it shouldn’t look too antique, or that the language should be modified so that the audience can understand it, or that the actresses shouldn’t wear corsets because it’s not very sexy, etc., etc….
We know perfectly well that if you jumped in a time machine and went back to Turner’s world, what you would experience would probably bear no resemblance to this film at all…. But we’ve gone as far as we can to bring what we think and feel is accurate – without being documentary because obviously, it’s an impressionistic film.
On the look of the film:
Mike Leigh: The look of the film comes out of a sense of us trying to interpret visually the paintings, but also the spirit of the two periods that the film moves through – the late Georgian period and the early Victorian period.
Cinematographer Dick Pope: I studied Turner’s palette at the Tate Britain where they’ve got a fantastic resource for everything Turner-esque…. In a way, the colorization of the film is very much in the palette of what Turner was using at the time.