Tagged: biopic

Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (France 2013)

Jim/Jimmy (Benicio Del Toro, left) with Georges Devereux (Mathieu Amalric)

Since my personal lockdown began back in March 2020, MUBI has proved to be my most reliable source of films to watch. I’m still not prepared to go back into cinemas, though I miss the big screen very much. It’s not the cinemas I mistrust but the crowds emboldened by the UK government’s chaotic policy decisions. So I’m staying online for now. I’ve tried many MUBI offerings and decided quite quickly that some aren’t for me, but many are and I’ve experienced many welcome surprises, none more so than Jimmy P., a title that I’d never noticed before and which doesn’t seem to have been released in UK cinemas, though a DVD and VOD version was made available in 2014.

This title is part of a MUBI strand titled ‘Cannes Takeover’, celebrating films from 70 years of Cannes Film Festival screenings. It was shown in competition for the Palme d’Or in 2013. Jimmy P. belongs to that often intriguing group of French films made in English in North America and presenting American stories. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin and based on the book Reality and Dream (1951) by Georges Devereux, it is an intriguing mixture of biopic, ‘buddy movie’, almost procedural study of a form of psychotherapy, and a drama about post-war late 1940s settlement for Native Americans – the ‘present’ is 1948 in Montana. Georges Devereux (1908-85) was an extraordinary figure. Born György Dobó as a Hungarian Jew, he moved to France after the First World War, changing his name and eventually losing any religious affiliation and gaining an education in first sciences and then languages. He could speak four languages as a child and went on to learn both Asian and Native American languages, spending time as an ethnographer and then as a psychiatrist.

Jimmy talks and Georges records what he says . . .

Jimmy Picard is a Blackfoot who returns from the war in France to his sister’s farm in Montana but he can’t settle and she eventually gets him admitted to Winter Hospital for Veterans in Topeka, Kansas. The staff, who seem generally concerned to do their best for their patients, struggle to find what is wrong with Jimmy. Apart from some ailments that can be treated he doesn’t seem to be suffering physically and he doesn’t seem to be mentally ill, but he is uncommunicative and clearly not happy. Eventually they send for Devereux who arrives from the East on what seems a tenuous contract but he quickly succeeds in gaining Jimmy’s confidence and together they begin to explore his background and his dreams.

This film received some good reviews – in the US as well as Europe, but general audiences were not drawn to it. As is often the case for European films it failed to fulfil American expectations of an entertainment film. It did OK in France but must have lost money for its producers. There is a lot of ‘talk’ in the film and the narrative refuses to follow the familiar triumphant arc of ‘therapy dramas’. None of this worried me. I was engaged from the start, particularly by the performances. Jimmy is played by Benicio Del Toro. In one sense it is a shame that a Native American actor was not cast in the role but Del Toro is remarkably good in the role. He speaks slowly and sometimes haltingly but with real conviction and intelligence. This is definitely not a typical Hollywood version of a Native American character. Devereux is played by Desplechin regular Mathieu Amalric. At first I thought he might be pushing his performance too far into the eccentric presentation of an unconventional scientist. But Amalric holds the line and displays Devereux’s humanity as well as his behavioural quirks. Devereux displays his knowledge of Native American peoples and their languages and customs and Jimmy P responds, impressed that Devereux treats him as an equal but still challenges him with quite difficult questions.

A dream image

Much of the dialogue between the two men is about Jimmy’s dreams and Desplechin and his cinematographer Stéphane Fontane, with designers Dina Goldman and Justin N. Lang, create dream scenarios or ‘dreamscapes’. Jimmy’s memories also require the presentation of flashbacks to his childhood and his earlier relationships and to his time in France with the US Army. There were occasions when I wasn’t quite sure if a scene was a dream or a flashback, but I don’t think that matters too much. Jimmy P’s life had not been easy and the challenge for the filmmaker is to represent the confusion in Jimmy’s head.

I found this film endlessly surprising and this includes the introduction of Devereux’s lover, an elegant married French woman who manages to find a way to visit him for a few weeks and is welcomed as a guest by the hospital. I wasn’t sure what to expect when she stepped down from the train but I was bowled over to recognise Gina McKee, one of my favourite British actors looking trés chic and sounding authentically French. The girl from Co. Durham has done well and her character certainly energises Amalric’s Devereux, makes him even more amenable and gave me as the audience a real fillip.

Georges with Madeleine (Gina McKee)

What really matters though is what this film tells us about Devereux and his ideas and what it says about Jimmy and Native American cultures and the interaction between the institutions of the American state and the Blackfeet of Montana. Jimmy’s home is the Blackfeet Nation, administered from Browning, Montana and comprising one of the largest ‘reservations’ in the US – one-and-a-half million acres in North West Montana running up to the Canadian border. That border is a colonial boundary since the confederation of Blackfoot tribes extends into Canada. Apart from Jimmy himself, most of the other Native American characters in the film are played by Blackfoot actors or other Native Americans or First Nation peoples – several of the actors are Canadian. The script is subtle in the way it explores institutional racism and ‘casual racism’ encountered by Jimmy. This makes it more telling when, towards the end of his treatment, Jimmy corrects one of the senior staff at the hospital, correcting the doctor who has called him ‘Chief’ and saying: “Sir. My name is Jim. You call me Jim, not Chief”. The representation of what is in practice an Army Psychiatric Hospital is certainly nuanced. The Head of the Hospital, Dr. Manninger (Larry Pine) is the one who brings in Devereux and supports him throughout and clearly is concerned to do the best for Jim. The military doctor who calls Jim ‘Chief’ is the perhaps the only really officious doctor and his nurse is similar. But these are not bad people, they are perhaps just too fond of following procedures and not responding to patients carefully enough. As I’ve indicated, the script doesn’t need to paint the hospital in particularly lurid terms (cf the hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) when it can hint elsewhere in the narrative that the health of the Native American population in the US has always been threatened by the policies of the US government.

Jimmy with Jane (Misty Upham), the mother of his daughter

I was very impressed by this film and I’d like to show it to people for discussion. The only fault I can find with it is the lack of any geographical considerations. Topeka is a long way from Browning, Montana, nearly 1,000 miles, I think. I wasn’t always sure when characters had physically travelled that distance (by train in 1948), but it would have been a major commitment. But put that aside and everything else worked for me. There is no ‘happy ending’ as such, though the narrative resolves in a way that suggests Jim Pickard is now better equipped to approach his problems and that the hospital has learned something. The ‘real’ Georges Devereux worked at Winter Hospital until 1953 treating other Native Americans and then moved to posts in first Philadelphia and then New York where in 1959 his work was finally formally recognised by The American Psychoanalytic Association. In 1963 Devereux was invited back to France to teach through an initiative by Claude Levi-Strauss. He continued his work until 1981. He must have been a remarkable man.

Friese-Greene at the Bioscope

Friese-Greene experimental film

May 5th is one hundred years since the death of this British film inventor and pioneer. The Kennington Bioscope is streaming a discussion on his life and work by three researcher/historians; Ian Christie: Peter Domankiewicz: Stephen Herbert; ‘Back in focus: The Centenary of William Friese-Greene’. Wednesday May 5th at 7.30 p.m. [BST] and subsequently on line on You Tube. [NB it seems that there is 50 seconds of a blank screen with no sound before the You Tube broadcast kicks in.]

Friese-Greene was one of  a number of people in the 1880s experimenting on techniques to produce the illusion of a moving image from projected photographic film. He produced several working cameras between 1888 and 1891 and issued a patent for these. However, like some of the other inventors, he was not successful in projecting these images in a public showing; it was the Lumière Brothers success in this that made their work historic.

Friese-Greene ran a successful photographic portrait studio but his main interests were his experiments and the costs of his work on moving images led to bankruptcy. In the early 1900 he then experimented with early colour film. One of these, Biocolour, was projected successfully but it was eclipsed by other examples; it suffered from heavy flicker and colour fringing. Examples of his early films are available on You Tube, including a refurbished version of ‘The Open Road’, shot by his son Claude using his father’s system.

Friese-Greene‘s last public appearance was attending and speaking at a meeting of members of the British Film industry. Ironically he collapsed at the meeting and died.

He was for a long time a forgotten figure. The film biopic,The Magic Box, produced in 1951 was planned  to accompany the Festival of Britain in that year. The film was produced by Festival Film Productions, partly funded by the National Film Finance Corporation with contributions from all the major British production companies either for free or at cost. The script was by Eric Ambler based on a book by Ray Allister and directed by John Boulting. The film was shot in Technicolor, at that time reserved for prestige production in Britain. The technical side and the casting benefited from the varied contributing companies. There is is excellent colour cinematography by Jack Cardiff, fine production design by John Bryan and excellent costume design by Julia Squire. There are a host of cameos by British stars but there is a lack of dramtic effect. The film was a failure at the box office.

The film’s focus is the travails of his career. The sequences showing his experiments are brief. That depicting colour does not give much sense of the technology but that showing his working camera and projector does give a greater sense of its operation. There are some dates, such as the Industry meeting, but others, like the success with projecting his film,or his work on colour film, is curiously undated.

Brian Coe in The History of Movie Photography, Eastview Editions, 1981 is sceptical of the claims put forward in the film. He questions whether the machine described in Friese-Greene’s patents actually projected at the required frame rate of 16; and he reckons that the inventor only used celluloid after its use in the Edison workshops. Friese-Greene’s Biocolour system has more credence but fell foul of a patent suit by Charles Urban for his Kinemacolor. There is more on the Blog William Friese-Greene & me. Happily it also includes posts on another pioneer in Britain, Louis le Prince. The Bioscope presentation will likely shed more light on Friese-Greene and his contribution to cinema history.

Redoutable (Le Redoutable, France-Myanmar 2017)

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Truth at 24 frames a second?

I’ve found it increasingly difficult to watch Jean-Luc Godard’s recent films but am not sure whether that’s a comment upon me or Godard. Others seems to like them but maybe the fans haven’t moved on; from what I can tell Godard hasn’t moved much in recent years but it must be incredibly difficult to recapture what was seen as youthful brilliance during his heyday of the French ‘new wave’. Director Michel Hazanavicius’ script is based on Anne Wiazemsky’s memoir Un an après, which was about her marriage to Godard in the late ’60s (though they didn’t divorce until 1979 they had been separated for nine years) and so the film shouldn’t be taken as a straight rendition of what happened; however, I was fairly convinced.

In the film Godard himself (played brilliantly by Louis Garrel) says he’s finished at 37 years old and there is a sense that he was out of his time. His brilliant debut À bout de souffle was made in his 30th year, not quite in the ‘hot fire’ of youth, and when May ’68 erupted he was nearly 40. The film portrays him as trying to keep up with the youthful rebellion but not belonging despite the reverence with which he is held by the youngsters. Incidentally the May ’68 demos are brilliantly staged in the film.

Godard’s films steadily moved away from commercial cinema, not that he started in its midst anyway, and by the start of Redoutable he’d just made La Chinoise (1967) which didn’t hit the zeitgeist though the follow-up, Week End (France-Italy, 1967) did; the latter doesn’t get a mention as the film covers only a few weeks in May including the abandoned Cannes film festival. He’s seen meeting Jean-Pierre Gorin with whom he formed the Dziga Vertov group; they went on to make the excellent Tout va bien (1972, France-Italy) with Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. One film of Godard’s from the era I’d like to see again is Le gai savoir (France-Germany, 1969) which I remembered enjoying in the halcyon days of the UK’s Channel 4, in the 1980s, when they screened truly alternative texts.

Hazanavicius uses a Woody Allen gag when a fan asks Godard when he’s going to make funny films again (as against the serious political stuff) and though Godard didn’t make straight comedies (or straight anything) there was a lightness of touch to many of his earlier films and Redoutable takes its cue from that. One scene, in particular, is hilarious when Godard and his confederates had managed to get Cannes cancelled the General Strike means there’s no transport back to Paris other than a packed car in which he can’t help but be his argumentative self; its superbly staged and performed.

There are more gags in the Godardian touches such as the use of intertitles and the self-reflexive scene were Godard and Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) discuss having actors perform nude gratuitously in film: of course, they are naked. In fact Martin is often naked in the film though it’s a stretch to suggest that Hazanavicius is satirising the misogynist tone of many of Godard’s films. The portrayal of Godard does show him to be an entitled male even though he is one who understands his entitlement he can’t resist using it. At the end of Agnès Varda’s documentary Faces Places a planned reunion with Godard fails to happen because he isn’t home showing him to be mean spirited.

I particularly liked Christian Marti’s set design that emphasises red, white and blue, colours that often featured in the director’s films. I think those who know Godard will enjoy the film more than those who don’t but there’s enough for the non-aficionado too. Any Godard fans want to have a go at the question, ‘Redoutable is the best film featuring the name Jean-Luc Godard for many, many years’. Discuss?

A Twelve-Year Night (La noche de 12 años, Uruguay-Spain-France-Argentina-Germany 2018)

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Looking for freedom

I’ve bashed Netflix a few times on this blog but am grateful to it for A Twelve-Year Night, an extraordinary biopic of three political prisoners who were tortured and kept mostly in solitary for 12 years up until 1985. Writer-director Álvaro Brechner does a brilliant job of conveying the hell the men lived by focusing on their experience, firstly by laying out the restricted routine of their lives before opening out the narrative, mainly through flashbacks. Through this we get a sense of the claustrophobic lives they were forced to live having being imprisoned for opposing the military dictatorship. The ‘opening out’ is obviously a relief to the spectator and the contrast with the early part of the film gives us a sense of the mental torture of loneliness and depravation suffered by the men.

The prisoners were three of six who spent 12 years being taken from prison to prison (40 in all), presumably as a way of keeping them away from their families who were trying to use the courts to get access to them. Brechner never explains the machinations of the state as his focus is on the men, we (sort of) experience what they experience, so when a family suddenly are able to get a prison visit we are as surprised as the men. There is one scene that gives us a sense of what was happening on their behalf in the ‘outside world’ and this is when they are hauled in front of a committee from the International Red Cross but are only able to state their name before being taken away. This shows us the men had not been forgotten but effective help was not seriously forthcoming until the return of democracy.

If it all sounds gruelling, and the first hour is tough, the film is leavened with humour such as how one of the prisoners advises a guard on how to write love letters. The script is based on two of the prisoners’, Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, book about their experiences; the third prisoner was Jose ‘Pepe’; Mujica. As is conventional at the end of a biopic we find out what happened after the end of the film; I was truly gobsmacked by what the men did afterwards. My astonishment was, in part, caused by my ignorance about Uruguay; I’ve only seen one other film from the country, 25 Watts and  Alfonso Tort (Huidobro) features in both. Antonio de la Torre (Mujica) may be familiar from the television series The Night Manager (UK-US, 2016); Argentinean Chino Darin completes the triumvirate as Rosencof.

All the performances are convincing but it is Brechner’s script and direction that elevate this film to the truly special. As there is a danger of Latin America sliding back into American-backed authoritarianism at the moment (here’s an alternative view to MSM’s propaganda about what’s happening in Venezuela), we need reminding of the horrific consequences of rule without law. ‘Strong men’ only bring order through crushing dissent.

Citizen Kane (US 1941)

CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles, 1941, astride stacks of newspaper

CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles, 1941, astride stacks of newspapers

This is the film that was voted top in the Sight & Sound ten-yearly critics’ polls from 1962 until 2002. Even when it was toppled by Vertigo (USA 1958) it still secured the second spot. Top or ‘greatest’ films are conjecture rather than indisputable masterworks. But the sheer longevity of Kane speaks to its capacity to be seen and re-seen; for me at least ten cinema screenings. So now, thanks to the Hebden Bridge Picture House, cineastes in West Yorkshire have an opportunity to assess or re-assess the film. And it is screening as it should be experienced, on 35mm.

The film was directed by Orson Welles, his first outing with a feature film. Welles’s career is often seen as a series of failures. If so, what artist would not relish such failure. He also directed The Magnificent Ambersons (USA ), which, despite being cut by the studio, remains a fine and beautifully realised adaptation. Then we have the three great adaptations of William Shakespeare, Macbeth (USA 1948), Othello (USA, Italy, Morocco, France 1951) and Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff, Switzerland, France, Spain 1965). There is one of the finest film noirs Touch of Evil (USA 1957) – with the memorable opening combined track and crane shot that Robert Altman homaged in The Player (USA 1992 ). In between he filmed a memorable adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (France, West Germany Italy 1962). And then right at the end of Welles’ career the delightful, playful F for Fake (France, Iran, Germany 1975). Then there are his 123 screen appearances, plus many more on television. Some were pastiches, some were very poor films. But the outstanding performances, including Kane, Touch of Evil and that other classic The Third Man (UK 1949), are up there with the other greats.

Welles cinema was full of innovations. If you doubt that, after Kane, watch any Hollywood sound film from 1930 to 1940. This was in part because as a director Welles recruited the best talent he could find and both inspired and challenged them. He was, like many directors, similar to a conductor of an orchestra, providing the overall interpretation and offering the players scope for their individual talents. But it was also because Welles bought imagination to his art work.

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Citizen Kane has an original screenplay, produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz working with Welles. Mankiewicz had started in Hollywood in the 1920s and worked right through the 1930s. He had a background in newspaper work and bought an ability to write fast, witty dialogue and to provide a satirical view of human foibles. Both are apparent in Kane: there are many memorable lines and the rise and partial fall of the protagonist is delivered with great aplomb. Mankiewicz had addiction to alcohol and during the writing phase he was kept in line by Welles’s talented producer John Houseman who also contributed to the script.

The Art Design was supervised by Van Nest Polglase with Perry Ferguson; Set Decoration by Darrell Silvera; Costume Design by  Edward Stevenson, all members of the RKO Art Department. The film involves an incredibly varied range of sets and period costumes. It also involved settings that even by Hollywood standards were large, impressive and [at times] overbearing. The opening sequence as the camera tracks in on Kane’s fabulous Xanadu exemplifies the range of materials and props and the use of special effects. The film was unusual for the period as most of the sets have visible ceilings, an aspect that Hollywood films tended to avoid because of the need for the lighting rigs.

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Welles and Toland on set.

One of the outstanding features of Kane is the cinematography by Gregg Toland. He started on camera work in the 1920s and worked through the 1930 and it was then he developed his skills in ‘deep focus’ techniques where the image has a noticeable depth of field. Kane is full of remarkable depth of field: there are impressive long shots of characters ‘lost’ in the vast grandeur of Xanadu. Toland used the latest film stock and lenses to innovate in filming. The film has impressive camera movements and angles, emphasising the vastness of Kane’s empire. There is also a strong expressionist feel in the use of chiaroscuro, something that is a Welles trade mark. Toland wrote up his work on the film for the ‘American Cinematographer’.

The Special Effects with the cinematography were by Vernon L. Walker, an experienced and skilled professional in the field. Two of the key sound engineers were John Aalberg Sound Supervisor and Harry Essman Special Sound Effects. Welles’ films are notable for their use of sound, a skill he bought with him to Hollywood after his extensive work in radio.  The original Kane enjoyed the high fidelity RCS Sound System.

The editing was by Robert Wise who went on to direct his own films. The film is beautifully put together, often relying on dissolves rather than cuts. But there are fine transitions and rapid montage: notably the sequences depicting the failing marriage of Kane and his first wife Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warwick). However, Wise later blotted his copybook when he worked on the studio ‘version’ of Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).

Integral to the film and the soundtrack is the music of Bernard Hermann. Welles bought Hermann to Hollywood where he enjoyed a long career as one of the greats of Hollywood music. His core for Kane is Wagnerian, especially in the specially composed opera excerpt, ‘Salammbo’.

Welles also bought a number of the players from his Mercury Radio Theater. Joseph Cotten is Kane’s friend Jedediah Leland; Everett Sloane is Kane’s manager Berstein and Agnes Moorehead, in only one short scene, is Kane’s mother Mary. Another key character is Kane’s second wife Susan Alexander player by Dorothy Comingore. There are numerous other supporting players, the cast credits run to over a hundred. William Alland offers an excellent investigate reporter Jerry Thompson and Paul Stewart is memorable as the oily manservant Raymond.

The quality of the film owes much to this supporting cast, including many minor roles only seen and heard in one or two scenes. Equally the production values owe much to the supporting technicians who worked with the director and his team leaders. The film enjoys the high quality of a Hollywood studio production coupled with an adventurous and innovative approach.

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Thompson’s instructions.

There is one other star in the film, a single word ‘Rosebud’. This invention by either Welles or Mankiewicz is a brilliant trope in the film, both binding the narrative together and providing an audience hook for the film’s exploration of Charles Foster Kane. It is also a ‘cheat’: watch the first sequence of the film carefully and then pay attention to the instructions to Thompson by his producer.

Some commentators suggest that ‘Rosebud’ is one factor in the campaign against the film by William Randolph Hearst, the great newspaper proprietor. Certainly, despite disclaimers. Kane’s character and career offer a number of parallels to that of Hearst in real life. Citizen Kane‘s relatively poor box office showing owed much to the campaign against the film in Hearst’s newspapers. And despite several nominations its only Academy Award was for Best Original Screenplay. In a long interview for the ‘BBC Arena’ Welles claimed that on the night of the films’ premiere, at RKO’s Radio City in New York in May 1941, he got into the hotel lift and saw before him W. R. Hearst. Both recognised the other. Welles claims that he offered Hearst a ticket to the film premiere which Hearst declined. Welles then quipped

“Kane would have taken it.”

Follow his example.

Check out the film in detail at the American Film Institute.

Mr. Turner (UK-France-Germany 2014)

One of many beautiful landscape shots of Turner looking for ideas.

One of many beautiful shots of Turner at large in the world he painted – here walking as therapy as he grieves for his father.

Mr. Turner is an extraordinary film. Its reception stands as an exemplar of audience and critical responses in 2014. I was surprised when we turned up at the wonderful Hebden Bridge Picture House on a wet December evening to find a queue outside for a film released more than six weeks ago. The large audience was mainly over 50 and they were seemingly absorbed over 150 minutes. By contrast, when I had shown the trailer to an A Level student audience back in October before it opened they didn’t think that the film would be particularly successful. However, despite strong critical responses and the Cannes acting prize for Timothy Spall in May, many of those in attentive older audiences have come out of screenings saying that they didn’t understand/enjoy the film as much as they had hoped. One friend said that it felt long and drawn out – but that actually he’d never been bored. I can certainly understand this: my first reaction was that I’d seen three different essays rather than a coherent film. One is an essay about ‘performance’ constructed around Timothy Spall’s portrayal of J.M.W. Turner, ably supported by turns from various Mike Leigh regulars and some new faces (mostly obscured by whiskers and bonnets). The second is about cinematography, production design, costume design etc. – a visual essay about representations of art and daily life in the first half of the 19th century. Finally there is Mike Leigh’s diligently researched and at times inspired musings on theatre, art and new forms of communication in the same period. All three essays are high quality but they don’t combine to make the conventional film narrative that the popular audience is no doubt expecting.

When I got home I couldn’t stop thinking about the film and felt frustrated until I found the Cannes press notes. Alongside the Sight and Sound interview these helped me to make sense of what I’d seen. The long synopsis of the film explains the background to each scene. Even then I needed to find out more about the chronology of events. Leigh does not provide any indication of dates as such so it isn’t clear that the narrative runs from 1828 until Turner’s death at the age of 76 in 1851. At first I struggled to be sure that the narrative was linear. It’s worth at this point acknowledging that the film isn’t a straight biopic and there is no ‘requirement’ to present the events in a documentary fashion. Ironically, those potential spectators who have decided not to watch a ‘costume picture’ – as well as those audiences upset that the narrative doesn’t conform to the conventional mode – do not recognise that Mr. Turner is an art film (as distinct from a film about art). It’s probably wise to state the other things that Mr. Turner ‘isn’t’ as well. It isn’t a straightforward film about Turner’s ‘artistic vision’ as such. Leigh says that he watched many films about painters before writing the script. He also has his own background of an early art education to draw on, but he wants to avoid both the kind of films that make artists into mad geniuses (e.g. Minnelli’s Lust for Life) or to try to recreate the artistic vision in terms of the filmic image in simple terms. What he does do is to focus on the artist ‘working’, getting his sleeves rolled up, grinding ingredients for paints etc. He also gives us ideas about Turner’s approach in oblique ways, such as the joke about the elephant in the Hannibal canvas. I found these ideas about the working life of the painter one of the most interesting aspects of the film (see the image below about the hanging practices of the Royal Academy).

Turner in the main gallery of the Royal Academy where the artists continued to work on paintings after they were hung.

Turner in the main gallery of the Royal Academy where the artists continued to work on paintings after they were hung.

Something else that Leigh hasn’t made is a film about the personal life of the painter and his relationships. We see something of Turner’s involvement with three women, but only rarely do we learn anything about these women and what Turner means to them. I’m not a Mike Leigh fan and partly it’s because I find that characters in his films are sometimes presented in a cruel way. The housekeeper is shown as a devoted servant/housekeeper who is occasionally ‘used’ sexually but who clearly dotes on her employer. She has a progressive skin disease, psoriasis, which I should have recognised from Denis Potter’s The Singing Detective. This is shown but not commented on. She also has a comic way of moving about the house – rather like, as one of my friends commented, Julie Walters as ‘Mrs Overall’ in Acorn Antiques. It wasn’t until I read the Press Notes that I realised that this housekeeper ‘Hannah Danby’ (Dorothy Atkinson) is the niece of Mrs Danby (Ruth Sheen), the woman with whom Turner has two children who in 1828 are young women. I must have missed that exchange of dialogue – some of it was difficult to hear. Turner is most settled when with a third woman, the twice widowed Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey). Overall, I think it is possible to see Turner as a rounded character who has many good qualities despite his deception of these women. But I never see Leigh as a humanist. He seems to want his characters to be exaggerated in some way. I’m trying to imagine a Mike Leigh melodrama where some form of ‘excess’ or exaggeration would be worked into the style of the film, but I just can’t see it.

The visual essay in the film is based around the cinematography of Dick Pope, Leigh’s long-time collaborator. Working with a digital format for the first time, Pope had the inspired idea of using classic 1950s lenses (used on the Everest documentaries in the early 1950s) with an Alexa camera. According to Pope:

These are lenses that have since been re-mounted and are now in great demand in advertising. A very retro lens construction, with tiny rear lenses . . . They have a very gentle, very romantic character, and are truly lovely at 75mm or 100mm on faces. They were a fundamental tool for this movie along with Alexa and Codex.

“This film was a joy to shoot”, admits Pope. “We had resplendent weather for the duration. Perhaps Turner’s blessing from heaven? I don’t think the project could have been done with grey or cloudy weather because, as the painter admits at the end of the film: “Sun is god”. (from the Codex website: http://www.codexdigital.com/casestudies/painting-with-light)

‘Codex’ refers to the Codex Digital company which has become an industry leader in terms of recording, storage and workflow hardware and software to be used with digital cameras. Pope argues that it was his experience using Codex RAW systems on a previous shoot that made it a good choice for Mr. Turner.

Dick Pope with Leigh and his actors on location for a shoot depicting Turner's 'shop gallery' organised by his father (Paul Jesson, on the extreme left). Image from www.codexdigital.com

Dick Pope with Leigh and his actors on location for a shoot depicting Turner’s ‘shop gallery’ organised by his father (Paul Jesson, to the left of Timothy Spall). Image from http://www.codexdigital.com

I’ve suggested that Leigh’s approach to representing Turner’s ‘vision’ ‘isn’t conventional. The main tenet of Leigh and Pope, working with production design and effects was to see the second quarter of the 19th century as Turner himself saw it. He was given the title of ‘painter of light’, the same term often used to describe what a cinematographer does. Pope and Leigh were lucky with the weather after they decided to follow Leigh’s usual practice and shoot only on location. Pope relied on available light as much as possible, waiting for the right time of day. He matched Turner’s palette by choosing the same colours where possible and then tweaking the digital images. The landscape shots are stunning but Pope argues that much of the film is about the interiors and this is where the 2.35:1 ‘Scope frame proved most useful, allowing Leigh to compose single shots with complex movements of actors in 19th century buildings and also to give us Turner’s perspectives on these scenes. I can see that I’m going to need the Blu-ray of Mr. Turner and to study it in detail to see exactly what Dick Pope means in his interviews.

I realise that I’ve not mentioned the acting and the music. The latter worked well, but there was so much else going on I didn’t have the time to think about it. The acting is what you might expect from a Mike Leigh film in which every actor enthusiastically gets into character through rehearsals and improvisation. Timothy Spall learned to paint so he would look authentic in the role (I think that I’ve learned about Turner’s sketching style which seemed odd to me as a non-artist). Much has been made of Spall’s grunts, another example perhaps of the Leigh method of discovering a reference in descriptions of Turner and then exaggerating it. I didn’t mind this so much – Spall creates an interesting character, physically different perhaps to the real figure, but believable as a painter both validated and criticised by his peers.

The inset showing the scene from the film against Turner's painting of HMS Temeraire being taken to the breakers' yard' (from IndieWire – see link below)

The inset showing the scene from the film against Turner’s painting of HMS Temeraire being taken to the breakers’ yard’ (from IndieWire – see link below)

The only criticism I would have of the whole production is that I thought the lighting of the images created by merging Pope’s cinematography with CGI to visualise Turner’s experience of seeing the Temeraire being towed to the breakers’ yard (the subject of his most famous painting) just didn’t work. Pope tells us the sunset is real and that it was shot in virtually the same part of the Thames estuary as the painting’s setting. He argues that the CGI that creates the movement of the ship(s) works well, but for me it has that artificial sheen. The image above comes from an interview on IndieWire.

The film has been Leigh’s most successful at the box office, making £6.3 million as its cinema run is coming towards its end. It did however cost over £8 million and needs to make around £20 million to move towards covering its costs. The international and the North American ‘domestic’ markets are going to be very important plus those ancillary sales.

I hope I’ve convinced anyone who has got this far that the film is very well worth seeing. Just don’t expect a conventional artist biopic! The trailer below includes the CGI mentioned above (and also shows the very beautiful opening credits design) – but beware it is one of those trailers that shows you glimpses of many of the best scenes in the film: