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Reviews / Timothy Spall: ‘there is a script eventually’

Timothy Spall at Mareel: 'You’re almost creating a parallel universe when you’re creating the movie'. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

SCREENPLAY has played host to a diverse array of visiting guests this year among them the talented and enigmatic actor Timothy Spall, writes Alex Purbrick.


Timothy won Best Actor for Mr Turner at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival for his brilliant portrayal of the English Romantic painter Joseph Mallord William Turner.

During his fleeting 48-hour visit to Shetland this weekend he spoke to Shetland News about throwing himself into the mind and body of one of the great masters of the art world.

“I read many biographies of Turner, looked at his work, and took fine art lessons for two years with a private instructor before the film began,” he said.

“I did a full-size replica of a sea piece of his Snow Storm: Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) which was in an exhibition at Pepworth House in West Sussex, and someone asked me if it was an original Turner painting. I couldn’t paint like that again because at the time I had my teacher standing behind me.”

A slight humbleness of talent underlies Timothy’s words as he recollects his investigation into the world of Turner the artist. There are not many people who could master painting the light and ethereal quality of the landscape like Turner but Timothy seemed to take it all in his stride reading countless books on the man and researching the physical appearance and habits documented about him in order to bring the essence of the artist to life in film.

Personifying and becoming the artist was a process encouraged by film director Mike Leigh who as Timothy describes, “is like a chef, the actors are the ingredients and the work you do is an investigation.

“There is a script eventually but initially its improvised, it’s a collaboration which creates a very powerful connection between what he does and the length of time it takes to build the film with everyone working towards the same goal.

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“You’re almost creating a parallel universe when you’re creating the movie. All artistic creativity is a form of creating a parallel universe. Great paintings, sculptures are about that, taking you to somewhere.”

This film certainly transports us to the parallel universe of 19th century England with stunning cinematography evoking the light and breathtaking landscapes of Turner’s most famous paintings.

Mr Turner is not simply a documentary about the artist; it is a film about the profundity of Turner’s life rising from humble, poor beginnings in working class London to fraternising with upper class establishment and nobility. It also encapsulates the essence of a man who painted the power and poetic grandeur of nature, his final epitaph and the closing line of the film being “the sun is God”.

Talking to Timothy Spall, one can see the parallel universe of his life with that of Turner. Born to working class parents in London and working his way up through theatre and film, to being awarded an OBE in 2000, he is a man who, through acting has revealed and expressed the highs and lows of the human condition lending him the title of one of Britain’s finest character actors.

His closing remarks in our conversation when he quoted the poet William Blake that “art and poetry is God” revealed a philosophical side to his personality influenced possibly by his close brush with death after a life-threatening encounter with leukaemia in 1996 which forced him to reflect on “the profundity of life in that he didn’t die and was still living.”

It certainly revealed a complex man whose passion and love for acting as an art form has defined him as an incredibly versatile actor but also a creative soul, who like Turner finds beauty in the ordinary yet transforms it into the 21st century with the artful medium of film.


Review: Stanley, A Man of Variety

Stanley, A Man of Variety, is directed by Stephen Cookson and stars Timothy Spall, whose career has spiralled from playing a goofy Brummie labourer in Auf Wiedersehen Pet to one of the most accomplished actors in an amazing variety of screen roles, writes Peter Johnson.

Despite a title that suggests the whimsical, Stanley, shown in Mareel on Saturday afternoon, is a dark and disturbing exploration of a mind in the grip of severe, delusional, illness.

The eponymous Stanley is apparently a trustee (and also the only inmate) in an archaic mental institution. In exchange for cleaning and mopping this edifice, which is on the brink of closure, Stanley is rewarded with TV tokens and videotapes of black and white light entertainment.

When his privileges are inexplicably withdrawn, Stanley is plunged into a crisis leading to a suicide attempt. As he teeters between life and death, Stanley has a series of encounters with a host of grotesque characters, most from the world of early TV comedy, such as Max Wall, Max Miller and George Formby – all played brilliantly by Spall.

As Stanley appears to be heading to some sort of cathartic admission of the wrongdoing that led to his incarceration, the plot takes further twists that lead to an even more disturbing reality for him.

“Enjoy” is the wrong word for a film about someone with acute schizophrenia, but the film certainly has quite a few chucklesome moments as Stanley relates to his strange mentors.

The soundtrack is a weird overlay of whispered voices, distorted show tunes and random noises that certainly evoke the halucinatory, but somewhat muffle the dialogue in parts. But this does not obscure the general thrust of the film.

Stanley certainly does not fall into any genre pigeon hole – part comedy, part exploration of madness and even part horror. Its fragmented nature maybe reflects a psyche for whom the world makes no sense, leading it to create its own reality.

Afterwards in a Q&A session with curator Mark Kermode, Spall delighted the Mareel audience with his unpretentious personality and clear explanations of the process of making Stanley, plus many other titbits about rising to fame over a 40-year career in TV and cinema.

Stanley was filmed entirely in a disused magistrates’ court in London – a set with its own strong atmosphere of despair and hope – and that even yielded a brush with the supernatural during filming, Spall revealed.

The London born actor in his youth had been a fan of many of the characters he played in the movie. Like clowns which have become the symbol of things we are supposed to like but are actually disturbing, many of these comics were peculiar to the point of unease.

Not surprisingly, Spall is a fan of David Lynch, who has become a touchstone of portraying the often mundane in a surreally unsettling way throughout his illustrious career.

Spall said he initially hated Cookson’s script, but after much discussion about how it could be realised, decided to give it a shot. Once underway, the production built layer on layer to the characters and filming was remarkably concluded in two-and-a-half weeks – resulting, in Spall’s words, in a “light entertainment dadaesque nightmare”.

Spall was able to play Stanley in morning shoots, and aided by watching old films on You Tube, his other characters in the afternoon.

As well as playing TS Lowry in a forthcoming film about the artist, Spall will also be making a supernatural film and a British gangster movie set during the London Olympic bonanza.

Stanley is a brilliantly acted, well shot and unique movie, but maybe not one that most people would hurry back to see a second time.



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