by Jordan Canahai
Mr. Turner, the unconventional British biopic from acclaimed writer/director Mike Leigh, details the last 25 years in the life of the great 19th century British painter J.M.W. Turner. As brilliantly played by Timothy Spall, he is not an attractive man, physically nor morally, but he nevertheless produces art of great beauty. Renowned for his magnificent landscape paintings, the movie fittingly opens in the English countryside, with a stunning wide shot of a windmill at sunset. It’s the subject of one of the many sketches Turner will produce throughout the film, which isn’t about showing the world as it is seen by Turner but rather showing Turner within that world.
The film’s beginning finds the middle-aged Turner a successful though unpretentious painter, greatly respected as a member of the Royal Academy of the Arts despite how his brusque manner and uncompromising work often finds him the center of controversy. He lives modestly in the company of his psoriasis-stricken housekeeper, Hannah Darby (Dorothy Atkinson), who loves Turner deeply, though he takes her for granted and occasionally exploits her sexually. His treatment of her is glowing, however, compared to the apathy he shows the woman with whom he fathered two illegitimate daughters, both of which he disregards. His closest relationship is the one he shares with his father and best friend, William (Paul Jesson), whose death deeply affects Turner. From there the film details Turner’s struggles to cope with that loss, his falling out of favor in the art world, the difficulty he had adjusting to the changing times, and his relationship with a twice-widowed seaside landlady, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), whom he takes up with in a neighboring town and lives with until his death.
Leigh’s triumph exists in how he neither forgives Turner’s failings nor lets them define him, but rather brings them all together in a fascinating portrait of the artist and man. Central to the film’s great success as well is Spall’s superlative performance, which deservedly earned him the award for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival last year. With his pug-like features and gruff manner of speaking, Spall portrays Turner as a blunt man with a sharp tongue and a short temper, yet one whose spirit is sensitively tuned to the world about him in ways entirely unique. A series of scenes in which Turner comforts his father on his deathbed, travels by sea to solicit the company of a prostitute for a nude sketch, mournfully weeps, and returns to his home to have detached sex with Hannah, is remarkable for the way Spall suggests, with great ambiguity, how the sequences of events are all strangely linked, perhaps in ways that Turner himself doesn’t even understand.
Mr. Turner stands as a fine piece of filmmaking craft. As in Leigh’s other great 19th century artist biopic, Topsy-Turvey, the England of Mr. Turner is lovingly realized to the smallest detail, effectively transporting viewers to a world that no longer exists. Dick Pope’s gorgeous cinematography pays respect to its subject’s art not only in how it regards the play between light and shadow in the film’s interior moments but also in how he captures beautiful vistas in the film’s many striking compositions. Mr. Turner also succeeds in the way Leigh’s screenplay provides a great gallery of secondary characters to showcase the talents of his excellent supporting cast. The aforementioned Atkinson and Bailey do fine work as the women in Turner’s life, while Jesson realizes William Turner Sr. with great warmth and humor. Also impressive is Lesley Manville as female scientist Mary Somerville and Martin Savage as artist Benjamin Haddon, each valued by Turner as contemporary pioneers and friends. The presence of both suggests a much larger world outside of Turner’s, one that a whole other film could probably be centered around.
Mr. Turner examines the internal conflict between a man who was both a great, revolutionary artist and yet also a deeply flawed, human individual. Moreover, it also shows how those elements shaped his epic works, which stand as more than paintings but rather spiritual distillations of his world. In the same regard Leigh and his collaborators have given us not only a fully realized human story, but also a rich examination of the strange ways life and art overlap, thus allowing us to better make sense of both.
Watch the trailer for Mr. Turner
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