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Tom Shone

At the Cinema

Mike Leigh’s Turner shows how to handle beauty in the movies. With a shot of ugliness, or a whiff of rot

Tom Shone | November/December 2014

Ah, the sweeping vistas and epic grandeur of Mike Leigh! Seriously. The gnomish poet of the council flat and the vegetable allotment has made a biopic of J.M.W. Turner  which begins with a lovely tracking shot. Two Flemish maids carry buckets of water along the muddy banks of a canal, a windmill churns against the dawn light, before the eye settles on a distant figure in a top hat, Mr Turner (Timothy Spall), poised among the rushes like a pregnant stork. The cinematographer is Dick Pope, Leigh’s DP ever since “Life is Sweet”, whose most sprawling vista consisted of an unfinished suburban patio, which Jim Broadbent was forever promising to complete (“Anyone seen my grout?”). So has Leigh gone all English Heritage on us? Not a chance.

From Spall’s porcine performance to the Hogarthian fly-by of noses, chins and whiskers that make up his supporting cast, Leigh has fashioned a film that would have delighted Turner’s champion, the art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire). “To banish imperfection is to destroy expression,” he once proclaimed. Leigh shows painterliness entwined with pug-ugliness. Cinematography should be about more than just the making of pretty pictures. “Such beauty is a tricky thing,” the critic David Thomson once wrote, of Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven”. “It’s not that photographic beauty is actually that difficult: the art of the camera begins with making the world look pretty, elegant and desirable when, in truth, it’s far more complicated. That’s why so much advertising is so good-looking; it makes us want to purchase. Thus, beauty sometimes can smother meaning.”

British directors, in particular, can be prey to the lure of the pretty. Groomed in advertising, like Tony and Ridley Scott, or the theatre, like Kenneth Branagh and Sam Mendes, they can make the visuals mere embellishment of the drama rather than its means of expression. Mendes’s Bond film, “Skyfall”, photographed by Roger Deakins, was possibly the most beautiful Bond ever. There was barely a frame you couldn’t eat your dinner off, from the shoot-out against the gleaming billboards of Hong Kong, to the sight of Daniel Craig posed against a Scottish grouse moor.

“I didn’t know you could get up here,” says Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), when they explore the turrets of Westminster.

“Why waste a view?” responds Bond, like an E.M. Forster fop fondling his pince-nez.

Should Bond be this beautiful? The really good action directors—James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Greengrass—are too busy constructing their sequences, rivet by rivet, to bother checking out their reflection in the plate glass. Peckinpah aside, only the cheeseheads use slow-mo. I once asked the late, great art critic David Sylvester for his definition of art. “A cheetah,” he said, “moving too fast to notice how beautiful it is.”

It’s one of the reasons I love cinema: the aesthetic cover granted by its speed. You want to slow the best films down, reduce them to a set of stills, the better to take in the view, but they refuse and keep moving, leaving you with a pleasurable ache. Cinema fugit.

There’s a lovely shot of lanterns at dusk in Yimou Zhang’s “Raise the Red Lantern”, and a beautiful late-afternoon Parisian blue to the shopping sequence in Bertolucci’s “The Conformist”, that I look forward to every time, but both are gone in a flash, like a favourite guitar lick in a song. “I felt this section of ‘The Conformist’ in Paris should be filled with blue, which is the colour of freedom,” said the cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro. I go back and forth over whether the film has anything whatever to say on the subject of fascism; turn the sound down and you’d think you were watching a bunch of exceptionally chic and sexy spies. The film is one of those gorgeous, deluxe, duplicitous sensory pleasures—like “Days of Heaven”, “Blade Runner” or “Barry Lyndon”—which seem to exist purely for the audience to lose themselves, as the director has, in the palace of the production design.

I say “duplicitous” because the best of these films contain a hint of how quickly ripeness can turn to rot, like the apples and pears in nature morte. Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” may be the most beautiful movie ever. Featuring Brooke Adams, Richard Gere and Sam Shepard at their most handsome, and shot almost entirely in the violet hour, at dusk, it was a famous financial disaster, and sent Malick into a decades-long exile. But nothing could be more appropriate, for exile from Eden is exactly what the film is about, and the beauty that the cinematographer Néstor Almendros finds in a swarm of locusts, or a raging fire at night, has an almost biblical severity. This paradise was always meant to be lost.

Nobody knew the destructive power of nature better than Turner, who in addition to his late stormscapes, painted an erupting Vesuvius, and the inferno that consumed the Houses of Parliament in 1834, an event he witnessed first-hand. Exploding columns of flame and collapsing roofs were met with rounds of applause and huzzahs. “All London went to see the fire and a very beautiful fire it was,” wrote Letitia Landon, to her friend and fellow poet Christina Rossetti. Sounds like a movie.

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