By focusing on pivotal segments of their subjects’ lives, two recent biopics capture an historical imprint rather than a personal saga.
Mr. Turner is a triumph of immersion. So naturalistic are Mike Leigh’s inhabitants of 19th century England that their embodiment by contemporary actors feels anachronistic. It’s a testament to Leigh’s brand of realism, achieved by his exacting directorial method. The film follows J.M.W. Turner in his late phase, during which he developed his pioneering proto-impressionistic style. His career never becomes the primary narrative, though, and equal attention is given to his day-to-day domesticity and his vocation. Despite being essentially plotless, the episodic snippets of life from the artist’s last 25 years are more compelling than any period melodrama.
Timothy Spall gives an unsettlingly bodily performance as the eponymous painter. Described by Delacroix as bedraggled and brusque, Turner was infamous for his lack of personal hygiene and social graces. Spall grunts, moans, and wheezes his way through the 150-minute runtime, filling each scene with a fetid authenticity. Leigh prioritises accuracy of tone, character and setting over events (with which he takes many liberties), and Turner is replicated right down to his inward-facing feet and awkward gait.
Wider history is only explored to the extent that it affects Turner personally and many major events of the era are ignored all together. The advent of photography makes the cut and arrives just in time to make an impression on the elderly painter. While having his daguerreotype taken, Turner interrogates his photographer with cantankerous anxiety. “Do you take landscapes with your contraption?” he asks forebodingly. His fear of redundancy is touching, even to an audience conscious of painting’s secure future.
The only aspect of Mr. Turner that rings false is its portrayal of the art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire). Annoyingly effete and speech impeded, he is depicted as an over-opinionated charlatan who Turner tolerates but occasionally dresses down. This caricature feels ungenerous considering Ruskin was the most vocal proponent of Turner’s divisive style, and possibly stems from Leigh’s personal disdain for cultural critics. Nevertheless, there is something innately gratifying about a cockney accent admonishing the overly refined and the scorn is excusably light-hearted.
Personal events of varying significance provide a loose framework for delving into the everyday life of the late Georgians and early Victorians. The shadow of premature death and old-world illness is ever-present; Turner recounts losing two friends to scrofula, Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage) buries five of his eight children, and Turner’s housemaid Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) is plagued by a disfiguring skin condition. The emotional response to these tragedies is appropriately pre-Freudian. “‘Tis the way of things,” reflects the twice-widowed Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey) on her second husband’s death before reverting to her regular sprightly self. Turner handles the loss of his father with stoicism, later erupting into an uncontrollable cacophony of grunts and blubbering during a brothel visit. Through his empathetic direction, Leigh taps the geyser of repressed emotion and expresses the feelings of those unable to express their own.
By recounting Turner’s later life as he paved the way for abstraction, the need to rush through his formative years is avoided. The story of the apprentice-turned-genius can be a reductive one, often dependent on overwrought epiphanies and transitional montages. Depicting a life at its most habitual and self-assured is far more illuminating than a sweeping chronology. Mr. Turner documents a way of life rather than the forging of one.
The story of the American Civil Rights Movement is one of occasional triumphs marred by myriad tragedies. Selma opens on a hopeful note as Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) receives the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in Norway. As King approaches the podium we shift from Oslo to Alabama, where his acceptance speech is juxtaposed against the murder of four young girls by white supremacists in the Birmingham church bombings. The jarring beginning sets the tone of a film that is just as much a celebration of resilience as it is a commiseration.
Like Mr. Turner, the film diverges from the standard biopic by avoiding the compulsive documentation of every milestone in its subject’s life. Instead, it spans a two-year period of activism culminating in the Selma to Montgomery marches and the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Selma also sidesteps the need for verbal exposition by prefacing scenes with subtitled case notes from the FBI, who were tracing King’s every move. The result is densely plot-driven yet naturalistic, allowing for emotional resonance without oversimplifying the movement’s struggle.
Despite courting controversy for its alleged misrepresentation of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), the film can hardly be accused of bias. The liberty was seemingly taken for the sake of storytelling rather than any particular political agenda—LBJ’s exaggerated reluctance to prioritise King’s demands raises the stakes of the first act, but he ultimately aligns with the right side of history. The most harrowing episodes are factually accurate; terrorists did murder African American children, police officers did lash peaceful protestors with horsewhips. More importantly, the portrayal of King never devolves into hero worship. We see a flawed and human character who regularly second-guesses himself and compromises his marriage through repeated infidelities.
Given its subject matter, moral outrage is to be expected. But Selma delves deeper into this troubled period by recreating an authentic sense of peril. Protests unfold like well-choreographed battles, the disorientation of tear gas and blunt thuds of police batons evoking vicarious panic. It’s hard to watch at times, but the violence is an important portrayal of martyrdom in the face of systemic brutality.
“If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done,” reflected president Obama at the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Alabama, where John Lewis and David Oyelowo marched alongside thousands earlier this month. The president’s call for sustained civic engagement is especially sobering in the wake of Ferguson. Obama placed the shooting in its historical context as a tragedy that, while not unique, is no longer endemic thanks to revolutionaries like King.
The film closes with a speech from King prophesying an end to the endemic and a watershed of freedom. A subtitled epilogue foretells the futures of the film’s many historical figures—some triumphant, some tragic—the most notable being King’s assassination three years later. The movement was hindered by constant setbacks, and the film pays tribute to those whose strength of will overcame the fragility of their bodies. Ultimately, it’s a film about the tolls and gains of activism. While Mr. Turner illustrates a critical aesthetic juncture, Selma captures a decisive moment in the history of social justice.