Filmucopia Part II: Super Saturday

11 October 2014

In Part Two of my London Film Festival marathon, I review Mike Leigh’s magnificent Mr Turner, the Australian portmanteau film The Turning, and Abel Ferrara’s edgy biopic Pasolini. 

Today I saw three films at the London Film Festival, clocking up a bum-numbing seven hours spent sitting in the dark. Still, there are worse ways to get a sore bottom.

My highlight of the Festival so far is Mr Turner, Mike Leigh’s wonderful portrait of the artist, featuring a fantastic lead performance by Timothy Spall. Though he’s best known as a chronicler of contemporary London, Leigh seems thoroughly at home with period drama, and this counts as one of his most assured and passionately felt films. The film covers the last 25 years of Turner’s life, covering his slow decline in popularity, the death of his beloved father and his last great love affair.

Spall plays Turner as a growling and perpetually randy old bear, surly and incommunicative for the most part, seldom suffering fools gladly, and capable of breathtaking cruelty. In an early scene, he barely acknowledges his estranged mistress and two illegitimate daughters, who he’s all but abandoned. He’s also capable of immense feeling and sudden, theatrical swells of romantic passion, making him a strangely compelling figure. Spall is magnificent at showing Turner’s gruff, forthright intelligence, his selfishness and his occasional struggles with his own conscience. He lends a robust, lived-in quality to what could have simply been a comic caricature. Though Turner looks and often behaves like a grotesque, Spall locates the humanity of his character, in all its complex shadings.

While Leigh’s Turner has many shortcomings as a man, he is, proudly and indisputably, an artist. Mr Turner, though intimate in scope, is also a meditation on the process and conditions of making art. Turner spits and groans and fornicates, but mostly he constantly and diligently at his craft. We see him sketching continuously, watching the world around him, and finding potential subjects nearly everywhere. Always hungry for new experiences, he lashes himself to a ship’s sail to experience the eye of a storm. Even on his deathbed, he rushes into the street in his nightgown to sketch a corpse in the Thames. We see him shrugging off criticism of his work from some very high places (Queen Victoria declares his work “vile”) and ploughing on regardless, driven in relentless pursuit of his own vision.

Leigh also shows Turner at home in (if not always comfortable with) the industry and politics of making art. We seem him striding around the Royal Academy, greeting fellow artists cheerily like a bookie at a greyhound track. There are long evenings in stately homes with patrons, boring conversations with fashionable art critics, and the occasional tour for would-be buyers through his home salesroom. Though Turner often looks bored in these scenes, he submits to them stoically with the good sense of someone who knows this is all part of the job.

One of the great pleasures of Mr Turner is how thoroughly and enjoyably Leigh places you in the world of early Victorian England. The characters speak in an antiquated form of English (“thank ‘ee”; “a dish of tea”; “the morrow”), but the film never feels embalmed in period detail. Leigh does his characters the great courtesy of recognising that they were the modernists of their own age. Turner is especially curious about the advances in contemporary science: the discoveries of magnetism and gravity, the rise of steam power and train travel, and the advent of photography, even though it threatens his own profession. Far from being caught in the past, I felt thoroughly engrossed in the sights, colours, textures and thoughts of Turner’s world that I didn’t want the film to end.

Leigh has never been a particularly interesting visual filmmaker. The craft departments on his other films are generally functional and non-obtrusive, working primarily in the service of the narrative and characters. What a treat, then, to see Leigh create such a visually stunning film. Dick Pope’s outstanding cinematography recreates stunning light and landscapes lifted from Turner’s canvases, aided by richly textured production and costume design by Leigh regulars Suzie Davies and Jacqueline Durran. With a plangent orchestral score by Gary Yershon, Mr Turner is one of the most sensually appealing films of the year.

Though Leigh’s focus is Turner, he makes room in each frame for the women in his life. One of the more fortunate objects of his desire is Mrs Booth, his landlady at his holiday digs in Margate, with whom he lived for the last few years of his life. She’s played outstandingly well by Marion Booth, as an unsophisticated but essentially woman, whose warmth and kindness is borne of her knowledge of how cruel life can be. It’s a lovely performance. Dorothy Atkinson has the film’s trickiest female as Turner’s housemaid Hannah, who has a more compromised and difficult role in his life. With her shuffling gait and posture like a question mark, she’s often very funny, providing a crude comic counterpoint to the artistic goings-on. But Atkinson also makes her character’s pain clear from the first frame: she’s a source of sexual comfort to Turner, who calls her “Me damsel” but mostly ignores her. Leigh and his actors manage an impressive balancing act, in portraying a critical view of an exploitative master-servant relationship, without rushing to condemn the characters by today’s standards.

Some braver critics than I have suggested that Mr Turner is Leigh’s self-portrait of the artist as a grumpy old man, and it’s a plausible enough theory. Like Turner, Leigh has no truck with dwelling on the past, and is famously cantankerous towards interviewers and critics. When Turner rolls his eyes at the effete John Ruskin (wittily played by Joshua McGuire) and gives him a tongue-lashing for insulting the old masters, it’s difficult not to read this as a stand-in for Leigh, laying siege to his critics. The film’s autumnal colours and thematic preoccupations with old age and death also feel like the contemplations of an older man. Turner worries about his legacy and imagines his life’s work extinguished by the new daguerreotype. It’s the fear of all artists – does my life have meaning? Who will remember me after I am dead? With this film, Leigh now seems to have little to worry about in this department. Mr Turner is a triumph, and establishes him as one of the great Old Masters of our age. It’s a splendid piece of work and a sheer joy to watch. I can’t wait to see it again.

My Saturday afternoon was eaten up by a laborious screening of The Turning, a portmanteau film based on a linked collection of short stories by the great Australian writer Tim Winton. The Turning is a film that I really wanted to love – not just because Winton is one of my favourite writers, but also because I admired the ambition and strangeness of the project. Seventeen separate Australian directors were given one story each and asked to make a short film of around ten minutes. The resulting film isn’t a great success, but it’s certainly an intriguing failed experiment.


Like all Winton’s work, The Turning is set in Western Australia, one of the most isolated and beautiful parts of the world. As each story unravels, the reader starts to draw connections between the characters. A heavy sense of dread hangs over most of the stories, which are punctuated with themes of familial strife, parental neglect of children, the destructive effects of alcoholism, and the harsh and treacherous nature of the landscape.

It’s an enjoyable conceit for a novel, but doesn’t quite come off as cleanly on film. Stripped of Winton’s sparkling prose, the stories take on the well-worn tropes of TV soap operas. Attempts to draw connections between the stories are made harder by having multiple actors playing the same character in different sections. There are one or two comic moments – Cate Blanchett and Robyn Nevin have a grand old time jumping into a backyard swimming pool – but the relentlessly downbeat tone of each story starts to feel contrived rather than organic. Too often The Turning slipped into the trap faced by many young filmmakers, who equate misery with authenticity.

The Turning features some striking cinematography, and uniformly great work by established Australian actors and talented newcomers. Bridesmaids alumnus Rose Byrne does especially well in the tricky role of a battered wife who discovers solace in a vision of Jesus (the “turning” of the title). But in the end, the film feels like a lot of hard work for very little result. In the screening I saw, the film was stopped halfway through for an interview with one of the directors about his involvement. While it made a welcome space for loo breaks, it only prolonged the agony, extending the running time to three and a half hours. For that time investment, I want to see a Wagnerian soprano with a horned helmet sleep with her brother or set herself on fire. Sadly, The Turning didn’t even come close.

My final film in triple bill Saturday was Pasolini, Abel Ferrara’s elegant but strangely bloodless film about the last two days in the life of the Italian director and activist. Ferrara, who’s been making films about urban sleaze for years, had a strange kind of success earlier this year with Welcome To New York, in which an obese Gerard Depardieu went very full frontal. Pasolini is an intriguing change of pace for Ferrara – a beautifully filmed and intelligently scripted piece that recalls the chic aesthetics of 1970s Italian arthouse cinema. While it didn’t quite work, it’s nice to see Ferrara still going strong, and taking on another controversial true-life story on his own terms.


Ferrara is blessed with a great performance by Willem Dafoe as Pasolini, which is the film’s greatest asset. With his wrinkled angular face and scrawny body, Dafoe is a close physical fit for Pier Paolo, and his dry, earnest delivery becomes the perfect vehicle for the character’s radical diatribes against the Establishment.

The film starts with Pasolini in the middle of editing and promoting Salò, his final and most controversial film. In a series of interviews, he defends the right of an artist to scandalise. Ferrara clearly admires Pasolini’s view of himself as the Artist as Outsider, and seems as intent as Pasolini was on exposing the hypocrisy in Italian society. In an early scene, Ferrara dramatises one of Pasolini’s unfinished novels, featuring a closeted politician who cruises parks after dark for rough sex with street hustlers. As the film ends with Pasolini doing the same thing, the implication is that Pasolini was heroic for not hiding his desires behind a veil of bourgeois respectability.

Ferrara has some fun with the open sexuality of Pasolini’s world. The wonderfully crazy Maria de Medeiros plays Salò actress Laura Betti, who drops by for lunch with Pier Paolo and his mother and has the film’s best line, a wonderfully filthy anecdote about unorthodox uses for haemorrhoid cream. In an especially dazzling sequence, Ferrara recreates Pasolini’s final, unpublished film screenplay, set in a city in which gay men and lesbians live freely but come together once a year in a joyful orgy to propagate the species. (It wouldn’t be an Abel Ferrara film without full frontal male nudity and lesbian threesomes, after all).

Ferrara loses his footing – or possibly his nerve – when he considers the political ramifications of Pasolini’s murder. Rumours have abounded since Pasolini’s death that he was killed as part of a wider (possibly government sponsored) plot to stop him from naming corrupt public officials. It’s the kind of lurid tale of corruption that Ferrara could have had a field day with. It’s bizarre, then, that he and screenwriter Maurizio Braucci opt to steer clear of any controversy, sticking to the “official” version of the murder in which Pasolini is beaten to death by street hustlers.

Ferrara presents the final scenes cleanly and without comment, perhaps out of reverence for his subject, or perhaps out of a wish not to seem judgmental about gay sex. Yet this feels like a missed opportunity. Pasolini’s sexuality was one of his most complicated and least understood qualities, and seems ripe for some kind of critical examination. Was he a hypocrite for condemning capitalism but paying for sex with young men? Was his preference for “straight” working class boys some kind of power game, or evidence of his self-loathing, or both? Did he have a masochistic attraction to rough sex in dangerous situations, or even a death wish? Ferrara doesn’t deal with any of this, and nor does he explore the public outcry following Pasolini’s death. For a film about a director who was passionately engaged in the politics of his age, Pasolini’s opacity and refusal to choose a side does its fiercely partisan subject a disservice.

Perhaps it was an unrealistic fantasy, but I wanted more from Ferrara here: more sleaze, more sex, more outrage, and maybe even some redemption. As it was, this is a classy piece of work that suffered from being a bit too chic for its own good, and ended up being embalmed in its own good taste.

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