The extraordinary filmmaker Mike Leigh delves into the life, world and art of one of history's great landscape painters in “Mr. Turner.” The movie is a gorgeous, fascinating portrait of a coarse and thoughtless man who, at the easel, delivers beauty.
Like Leigh's Gilbert & Sullivan themed “Topsy-Turvy,” the film is a period biopic, though a slower-rolling one. Leigh's familiar heightened humanist realism, present in “Secrets and Lies” and”Vera Drake,” is on view. Sentimentality is absent.
No pretty picture was J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall). The 19th-century painter, whose art was linked with the Romantic movement but evolved into a pre-modernist style that influenced impressionists, is portrayed as an emotionally stunted toad who groans and grunts and, when painting, stabs and spits on his canvases. Yet his sunlit seascapes and other rhapsodies in yellow reveal genius and mastery.
Opening in 1826, the film covers the final 25 years of Turner's life, imagining everyday activities and occasional jolts.
In London, the middle-aged Turner interacts with his personable retired-barber father (Paul Jesson) and with devoted housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), whom Turner uses for sex. Visitors include an angry former lover (Ruth Sheen), with whom Turner shares two daughters. He won't acknowledge their existence.
At the Royal Academy of Arts, Turner joshes contemporaries and ruffles the stuffy decorum. In Margate, Turner rents a room from cheery landlady Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey). They become a couple.
Not atypically for Leigh, the film contains an unsuccessful caricature or two. The depiction of critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) as a pompous ignoramus is particularly one-dimensional.
But that's quibbling. Leigh's film is a credible, psychologically astute, visually stunning collection of brushstrokes reflecting a life and an era. The director’s storytelling, which involves no on-screen identification of dates and places, proves immersing.
Additionally, Leigh avoids composite characters. Even the bit roles are real.
Period detail and cinematography are rich. Presenting light-flooded landscapes as Turner might have seen them, cinematographer Dick Pope may be the movie's most enlightening contributor.
Spall, nuanced and funny, makes Turner mesmerizing. He's believable as a graceless boor and as an insanely driven artist who ties himself to a mast to experience a snowstorm.
While Leigh, his sensibilities differing, doesn't address the religious fervor that impelled the real-life Turner, he and Spall capture the artist's down-to-earth passions and buried capacity for deep feeling. Whether persuading Mrs. Booth to pose with him for a contraption called a camera, or incensing a collector by bequeathing his paintings to the British nation, Spall's Turner is a complex portrayal of a flawed but embraceable man who wants his life to matter.
Bailey's Mrs. Booth chirpily complements the cantankerous Turner, while Atkinson's Hannah conveys a sadness and longing that earn her the final close-up from the movie's humanist director.
Starring: Timothy Spall, Marion Bailey, Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Jesson
Written and directed by: Mike Leigh
Running time: 2 hours, 29 minutes