The later works of the Romantic English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, with their atmospheric washes of colour that verged on passionate abstraction, have been called "fantastic puzzles," though his life, as an eccentric reclusive wig maker's son, is usually considered unremarkable.
That paradox appealed to 71-year-old filmmaker Mike Leigh, who, best known for his caustic portraits of contemporary British life, has, for the third time in his long career, made a period movie (his others were Vera Drake, about a 1950s abortionist, and his Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy). To describe Mr. Turner as warts and all hardly does it justice: Spit, phlegm, rashes, servant-molesting and a good deal of grunting are also elements in a film that is sometimes closer to Monty Python than Masterpiece Theatre in its view of English history. At the same time, Mr. Turner is also emotional and strikingly beautiful in its evocation of Turner's world.
At its centre is a tour-de-force performance by Timothy Spall, the 57-year-old, round-chinned character-actor who starred in Leigh's Palme d'Or-winning Secrets & Lies in 1996. Mr. Turner may have been the role he was born to play.
"What was great," he said yesterday at the press conference following the enthusiastically received film, "was that he was a short, fat, funny little man and so am I."
Nothing in Mike Leigh's films are that easy. His films are created over several years, with the cast researching their own characters and developing the script through improvisation, In the case of Mr. Turner, Spall had run into Leigh on Greek Street in Soho, and Leigh said to him: "We're about to make a film in two-and-a-half years, and I'd like you to learn painting."
He took lessons, two or three times a week, with a noted English marine painter, Tim Wright. The harder part, he said, was "his amazing soul."
"Genius does not always come in the most romantic of packages. There's something a bit sociopathic about genius. He was working class, an autodidact who absorbed all these influences. There is this contradiction between this slightly brutish man with love in his heart, who wasn't quite sure where to put it."
In part, Turner's repression was expressed in the habit, at least in Spall's interpretation, of making strange grunting noises in response to other's comments.
"I think," said Spall, "that the grunting grew organically [in rehearsal]. He's this incredibly instinctive, autodidactic and intellectual man who had a zillion things to say and he encapsulated it into an explosive grunt. It's like, when someone tries to stop a sneeze and makes a funny noise. People who sneeze and redecorate a room have a wonderful time. If you suppress something that's quite pleasurable, you get a grunt."
The history of English culture has no shortage of prickly eccentrics, a group to which Leigh, arguably, belongs. During the press conference, he occasionally volleyed back a question with a sarcastic response. When a journalist asked him if he was aware that Russian director Alexander Sokurov's film Father and Son had consciously used Turner's colour palette, he snapped back: "And what do you want us to do about it?""
At another point, Leigh responded to a journalist: "It's nice to have a couple of silly questions."
Whatever common ground he may have with the irascible 19th century painter, Leigh said he had no personal identification with the socially difficult, artistically brilliant Turner.
"There are two things that are clear and non-negotiable: Whenever one makes a film, for me, it has to come from an empathy for the characters. The second thing is, we are artists, and we do naturally understand the character we're making a film about. But it's not a kind of narcissistic exercise."
He also makes no distinction between his contemporary and (occasional) historical films: "In either case, you try to get down to the hard rock of life. You can look at my films and certainly, on one level, you can see a consistency, an imprimatur and preoccupations through all the films. But on the other hand, what I like to do is make a different sort of film each time within the genre. I think Happy Go Lucky is as different from Naked as Topsy-Turvy is from Mr. Turner. I think it's important to vary the menu when you run a restaurant."
And as to one of the "silly questions" – about having an official English stamp honouring his film Secrets & Lies – Leigh said it was "great that Secrets & Lies is on a stamp, unfortunately it's on one that's more expensive than I use when I send a letter."