Mr. Turner is a massive achievement from Mike Leigh, his first biopic since Topsy-Turvy back in 1999. Starring Timothy Spall as the troubled but brilliant Romantic landscape artist J.M.W. Turner, it is a period drama that starts off slow and stagey but ends up as an impressive work of art.
Mr. Turner covers the final quarter century of Turner’s life as he deals with the death of his beloved father and finds love with a lonely woman in Margate after having difficult previous relationships with other women. As he travels and paints, visiting aristocracy and courting both disdain and celebration from his fellow Royal academy of Arts members, Turner is an eccentric force to be reckoned with. Grunting his way through many conversations, his genius is apparent but the mother of his children and his under appreciated housekeeper bear the brunt of being around this incredibly difficult man.
Turner is a difficult figure to like, even if his paintings are magnificent representations of the forces of nature. He is admirable in his revolutionary style and fearlessness with a brush but he is also a repressed, often odious man, particularly to the women in his life. His housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) receives the worst treatment as Turner ignores, molests, exploits and dismisses her throughout his life. She looks at him with desperation; begging to be noticed, acknowledged or even loved but is constantly cast aside like she is nothing to him. Similarly his relationship with a widow and their two daughters together is tense, strained and at times generally completely unsympathetic. It is only when Turner meets and falls for another widow, Sophia Booth, that Turner shows a softer side, revealing he is not at all the monster with women that may have been previously painted.
Turner’s eccentric exploits extend beyond his treatment of women however, and Mr. Turner offers a glimpse at the man who was tied to a ship’s mast in a storm, breaks down crying in a brothel and refuses an offer of £100,000 to sell all his paintings to a wealthy buyer. Like so many biopics, and even though the film is only covering the last 25 years of his life, Mr. Turner has a huge amount to fit in. At two and a half hours then it is strange for the pace to drag so much in the early scenes but this is mostly due to the direction of the housebound scenes and particularly those between Turner and Sarah Danby and their shared daughters. Here the dialogue is delivered theatrically and the performers are all posed as if in a play and it is only later that the film breaks free from this.
Notably, when the film transports the audience to exterior locations, the cinematography is frequently magnificent. Dick Pope, a regular collaborator with Mike Leigh does a stunning job of capturing the landscapes and the light that so inspired Turner’s paintings. A number of shots cast Turner as an iconic silhouette against the sunrise or sunset and the use of ‘magic hour’ lighting makes for some breathtakingly beautiful compositions. Similarly the recreation of early 19th century Margate is wonderfully nostalgic and though some scenes are necessarily narrow in scope (likely due to budget constraints), the period detail always appears perfect.
Timothy Spall is excellent as Turner, grunting his way through the film and turning repression and genius into an art form. His version of the painter is rarely communicative (except with his beloved ‘daddy’) and often both highly buttoned up but also bursting with ideas and ability. He is a fascinating character, even if he is very unsympathetic for much of the running time. Spall is spellbinding whenever the dam bursts and his emotions pour out from behind those simian-grunts and makes Turner infinitely watchable, if often not very likeable.
While Mr. Turner has barely been screened outside of Cannes, director Mike Leigh has previous form at the Film Festival with Another Year, All or Nothing and Naked all nominated for the Palme D’Or and Secrets and Lies winning it back in 1996. Mr. Turner is unlikely to pick up the big prize this year but it is nonetheless a fascinating study of one of Britain’s most interesting painters.
Though Mr. Turner is not one of Mike Leigh’s very best, it is worth seeing for a trio of excellent performances from Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey.
About the Author
Pete Turner is a Senior Reporter at Tastic Film Magazine