The British have a wonderful term that describes my reaction to Mr. Turner: I was gobsmacked. I look forward to every new Mike Leigh film, but there was no way to prepare myself for this novel treatment of a great artist’s life. Stunning to behold, it’s almost indescribably powerful and nakedly emotional at times…yet it eschews all the conventions of a traditional biopic and focuses on a man who was a mass of contradictions, the esteemed painter J.M.W. Turner.
Leigh says it all in the movie’s press notes: “He was a giant among artists, single-minded and uncompromising, extraordinarily prolific, revolutionary in his approach, consummate at his craft, clairvoyant in his vision. Yet Turner the man was eccentric, anarchic, vulnerable, imperfect, erratic and sometimes uncouth. He could be selfish and disingenuous, mean yet generous, and he was capable of great passion and poetry. Mr. Turner is about the tension and contrasts between this very mortal man and his timeless work, between his fragility and his strength. It is also an attempt to evoke the dramatic changes in his world over the last quarter century of his life.”
From the opening shot onward, it is clear that Leigh and his longtime cinematographer Dick Pope are intent on recreating the images of sea, sky and land that inspired Turner’s paintings. The effect is potent, all the more so because Leigh lingers on these moments, allowing us to drink everything in.
The man himself is much less inspiring. He has no relationship with the woman who mothered his children, let alone his two daughters. His grimy housekeeper is utterly devoted to him, but he shows her no sign of kindness or concern for her welfare. The one light in his life is his father, a retired barber who happily works as Turner’s assistant, grinding pigments and preparing canvases. (His father’s fate is spelled out in a scene I found dramatically overpowering; I can’t think of its equivalent in any other movie.)
That we aren’t repelled by Turner is a tribute to Timothy Spall’s astonishing—and thoroughly compelling—performance. He employs a wide variety of grunts and guttural sounds to express himself when words won’t do. This, no doubt, is a result of Mike Leigh’s process of developing the film through a long series of improvisations and rehearsals. The actors essentially create their own characters, as Spall has here, in his seventh collaboration with Leigh. The performer disappears and we are left with a vivid impression of Turner. His softer side finally emerges when he develops a warm relationship with his landlady in Margate, where he loved to spend time painting seascapes.
The other, equally impressive, achievement of Mr. Turner is its evocation of time and place, transporting us to 19th century England in such a convincing way that we’re never aware of the effort. Production designer Suzie Davies, costume designer Jacqueline Durran, and their colleagues deserve tremendous recognition, along with cinematographer Pope (working in the digital medium for the first time—but using older lenses), for creating the vital fabric of the film.
A word of caution: Mr. Turner is long and moves at a deliberate pace. It is neither too long nor too slow, but it’s not a film to take in when you are tired or impatient. It is meant to be savored, and should be seen on a theater screen to be fully appreciated. It is one of the year’s great films, not to be missed.