Mr. Turner is a dense, challenging biographical drama of ugly sounds and gorgeous visuals, sets and costumes. Veteran British filmmaker Mike Leigh (Naked, Secrets and Lies and Another Year) canvases the period spectacularly, while Cannes Best Actor-winner Timothy Spall (The King’s Speech) completely embodies the vile but fascinating J. M. W Turner, one of the great 19th Century British painters.
There is essentially very little plot to Leigh’s 12th feature, with the titular artist’s interactions with others driving the narrative along, revealing more about the man, the period, how his cumbersome frame and loathsome attributes fit awkwardly into the world and the legacy left behind. They are very interesting, despite being accompanied by Turner’s aggressive grunts and difficult-to-discern oratory. We are introduced to Turner when he is already at the height of his fame, and over what I took to be several decades we witness his creative decline, his emotional suffering over the death of his father, his impaired health, and the relationships that defined the last years of his life, in particular with Sophia, a widowed seaside woman he falls in love with. Turner travels consistently as an inspiration for his work and was a respected (if unruly) member of the Royal Academy of Arts. There is a lot to digest in this film.
Turner was willing to do anything for his art. On one occasion (or more?) he straps himself to the mast of a ship so that he could experience and paint a snowstorm, and on another he tinkers with his work as it hangs in a gallery sale with nothing more than his own spit. He is understandably interested in industrialisation – the introduction of the stream train and the invention of the camera – and attempts to incorporate these advancements into his work. He was an artist before his time, perhaps misunderstood but also trapped in a creative bind. Best known for his paintings of harbors and shipwrecks, I got the sense from the film that he unsuccessfully evolved with the mechanisation of the time.
The features of Edison’s camera, so fascinating to the jovially inquisitive Turner but terrifying to Sophia, are well beyond what he can offer. We learn that his work was kept relevant by passionate defenders. A late great scene features his work being celebrated by lispy, pompously enthusiastic and young art aficionado in the company of less-than-convinced acquaintances, including Turner himself.
Like all of Leigh’s films that I have seen (Naked and Another Year, brilliant) his cast gets top marks. Spall has been a Leigh staple over the years and he lives and breathes Turner. This is as convincing an embodiment as there is – bringing a very flawed and unlikable man to life, with an emphasis on those undesirable qualities. Still, there are other sides to Turner – a kind charm in the presence of Sophia, a sense of humour, sensitivity, and a brash hedonism that earns him the respect of his peers. On some occasions he is a gifted linguist, with an affinity for colourful language while on others he reacts to inquisitions with nothing more than a disgruntled grunt. Spall manages to bring all of this out of the character and it an extraordinary piece of acting.
He is a completely different man in the company of his family and housekeeper than he is with artists and lady companions. The most fascinating and entertaining sequences are his interactions with cohorts, most notably Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), an outcast in the art world with financial difficulties, and Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville), a friend and culture-defying scientist.
Leigh regular Dick Pope photographs Mr Turner and he also won an award at Cannes for his work. The beautiful compositions actually mimic some of Turner’s own works – especially those of the harbours. This is a film that transcends time. By that I mean that it doesn’t feel like a film made in 2014, but the recreation of the period – the set design, the costumes etc – is so authentic it is hard to fathom it is anything other than a well-financed document.
Considering Turner was such an unlikable man I can’t say I enjoyed that much of the experience, and was pretty worn out by the end of it all. But, because there is so much to absorb in the films burdensome length, and as many individual sequences continue to stand out, Leigh’s unusual biopic must be commended.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Mike Leigh
Writer(s): Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey
Runtime: 150 minutes
Release date(s): USA: December 19 2014; Australia: December 26 2014