I recently mentioned on this blog that the year 2014 didn't really seem to have offered up too many film highlights, yet looking back I've realised that I was being my usual half-empty self, and that maybe I've been a bit hasty. For instance: 2014 did at least give us one of THE best science fiction movies of the last thirty years (Under The Skin); Lars Von Trier's Nymph()maniac was just great and, having viewed it again, I'd still maintain that Edge of Tomorrow is as good a slice of rip-roaring entertainment as you're likely to get in any year. Add to that the major diversion of Summer blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy (again, it bears multiple views plus who can resist Bradley Cooper as a talking Racoon and Vin Diesel as a monosyllabic tree?); Wes Anderson's charming Grand Budapest Hotel and the impending release of Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice as well as what will (hopefully) be a good third outing for Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen… even the final Hobbit movie (if it's as good as the last) looks like fun and, well… maybe I was being a tad harsh. Maybe it's just that inevitable save-it-all-until-it's-autumn/Oscar nomination time wasteland that we now have to endure all Summer which made me feel so bleak three months ago.
So, putting behind us the (inevitable) disappointment of Nolan in Space, it may not be that unusual to note that in the last week alone I've seen three great films all of which I could write reams about. Nightcrawler (dir: Dan Gilroy) stars a gaunt, sociopathic Jake Gyllenhall as the titular ambulance-chaser-with-a-flipcam creep, Lou Bloom, who embodies the lengths post-recessional capitalist zombies in West Coast America will go to to make their fortunes. It's not dark. It's black as pitch and offers no succour to those who believe in humanity's best instincts. The film's co-star, Rene Russo, as the news station chief editor who'll sell her (questionable) soul for ratings, no matter what she has to pass off as 'news' is equally impressive. Imagine Network crossed with Blow-Up with the cynicism turned up to 11. It's shocking and impressive…
Next up was The Babadook. Directed by former actress, Jennifer Kent, and based on her previous short, Monster, this Australian horror movie takes a very northern european trope (a creepy children's book character which looks like a cross between an Edward Gorey drawing and Struewelpeter that invades the home. Eek!) and comes up with an inventive twist on the 'monster in the cupboard' model of horror. Essie Davis is just incredible as the single mother dealing with her son who is displaying some worryingly disturbing behaviour in the wake of a fatherless upbringing. I won't say much more other than it's superbly stylised look at grief, dysfunction and the way in which both adults and children deal with loss and fear. It also had me experiencing something I haven't had from a horror movie in years: genuine chills up the spine. Don't go on your own (like I did).
But best of all was Mr Turner. Being told by critics who have the luxury to be jetted out to film festivals months in advance that a film is close to being a masterpiece is usually a real passion killer for me. So it was with Mike Leigh's latest. even if it was about my favourite painter and starred Timothy Spall who can pretty much do no wrong (even those Wickes advert voiceovers are somehow reassuring and he was the real cherry on the cake in another fabulous biopic: The Damned United). After being told for nigh on six months that this would be the film of the year it became the last thing that I really wanted to see. (yes, as my friend Simon would say: I'm a contrarian).
Thank god, I didn't listen too hard to that inner voice. I've said it before, but Mr Turner confirms it: I'm a sucker for the biopic, especially the old-fashioned Hollywood episodic type that leaves you rushing for Wikipedia 'facts' by the end. I may get round to expanding on this, but friends know that one of my all-time favourite movies is Martin Scorcese's criminally underrated The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes. Not only is it the film where I realised that Leo is a great actor, but for some reason everything about it makes me happy, from Cate Blanchett's pitch-perfect Katherine Hepburn to the cinematography of Robert Richardson. But really, from Fritz Lang's almost entirely fictitious The Return of Frank James (1940) via a visibly crumbing Montgomery Clift as Freud (1962) to Ron Howard's high-octane study of James Hunt and Niki Lauda in Rush - there's something about a 'real-life' story that always gets me hooked. Even though there's nothing remotely real about any of it.
And Mr Turner, while probably (I've been resisting reading reviews until now) being lauded as something extraordinary (which it is) is, under the skin, another film in the great tradition of condensing uncomfortable reality into a two-hour entertainment spree. For this reason Leigh serves up not only a reasonably accurate depiction of the world of academic painting in early 19th century Britain, but also teases a moving love story out of the life of a truculent man who famously had few friends.
It manages to carefully shoehorn in every famous anecdote you've ever heard about Turner (including the fictitious one about him being tied to a ship's mast during a snowstorm) and every significant painting that marked the geniuses' move towards proto-abstraction; all without too much visible artifice or contrivance. Only twice did I feel a little too spoon-fed: Once, when someone suggests that the sight of HMS Temeraire being towed to its grave by a steamer might make a suitable subject for Turner's canvas, and secondly when, despite his drunken adage, he turns to Ruskin's new young bride, Effie, and tells her that she will eventually find love (putting him in the role of mystic or seer).
A little like Gilles Bourdos' lesser study of a painter moving towards death, Renoir (2012), the digital palette on offer today now means that directors can make their films about famous painters match the colour schemes of their masterpieces. Mr Turner constantly and inventively hints at Turner's use of colour in its mise-en-scene while (thankfully) keeping to a minimum any sunset profiles.
From Petworth (above) and its deer park to the Academy and his famed rivalry with Constable and even up to his eventual fall from fashion via the machinations of ludicrously pompous fan-boy Ruskin and his PreRaphaelite disciples (as well as the later Victorian zeal for genre painting), this film never misses a trick. Yet it's far from dry history, despite its slavish attention to detail (witness Pa Turner shaving a pig's head near the beginning!).
At somewhere around the halfway mark, the film - which until this point seemed far less narrative-driven and more concerned with brief snapshots of Turner's later life (which seemed ironic, considering the role that nascent photography takes later in the film) - coalesces into a far more traditional tale of JMW's burgeoning relationship with his Margate landlady. This, along with the rather generic strings and saxophone soundtrack was about the only thing I could point to as being close to disappointments. Such is Leigh's masterful hand (and, of course, I'd forgotten that he was a master at this sort of period frolic, having given us Topsy-Turvy in 1999) and the sheer brilliance (forgive the hyperbole, but there's no other word for them) of the entire casts' performances.
Spall as JMW is as rough and graceless as contemporary accounts confirm, using dismissive grunts and porcine snorts to convey both disapproval and approbation while never failing to be less than erudite in the company of those more high-born than himself. It's a study of passion trapped inside a rotund, misshapen body but made eloquent both by the use of his hands and by a disarming grace with words. The language is a delight and even his faltering rendition of a Purcell song when duetting with a lost aristocratic love manages to convey a vast pathos, all the while sounding like a 19th century Tom Waits.
The (mis)treatment of women, represented by his abandoned mistress and progeny as well as the ill-used housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson (above): who really should get an Oscar for best supporting actress) contrasts with his discovery of domestic bliss in the arms of Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey) Yet Leigh never sugar-coats the contradictions and injustices, instead balancing them with the mores of the day and the painter's rejection of human injustice and fascination with the rapid progress of the scientific and industrial revolutions of the age. It's the work of a director who uses his own canvas to paint a portrait of a man for whom nature could never became dull and who, beneath a grim exterior, possessed a huge heart.