J. M. W. Turner’s (Timothy Spall) world is one where beauty and contradictions are intertwined. One of the greatest painters of the 19th Century, Turner had a visionary eye when it came to capturing landscapes and natural light on his canvases. However, he was also a man who was frustratingly complex. Turner was a boorish man when it came to dealing with the mother of his two daughters, and rather petty when dealing with other artists. Yet there was a side of him that was gracious and affectionate, especially in regards to his awkward relationships with several of the women who were a part of his life. It is this constant juxtaposition that is at the core of Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner.
Focusing on the last quarter of the painter’s life, Leigh presents a biopic that is not the tortured artist tale that permeates most films about painters. Turner is relatively well off, a leading figure at the Royal Academy of Arts and travels to locations all over Europe to find the settings for his paintings. The film sets the tone early by opening with an exquisite shot of Turner in a vast field in the Netherlands sketching a windmill. Leigh creates a visually stimulating vision of Turner’s 19th century world. The dirt roads, horse drawn carriages, buildings and the costume design all contribute to bringing the period to life. Leigh keeps the camera fixed using wide angles whenever possible to demonstrate the full scope of the landscapes that Turner is drawn to.
Director of photography Dick Pope also deserves credit for capturing the rich array of colours that are prominent in both the film and Turner’s paintings. In one scene Pope displays a giant valley with bright green mossy areas and a body of water at its base. The shot is as astonishing as the moments where Pope highlights the almost angelic beauty of the sunrises and sunsets that Turner reveres.
Not content with relying on the visual splendor alone, Mr. Turner features several strong turns from Leigh’s cast. Timothy Spall is fantastic in the title role of J.M.W. Turner, utilizing grunts and mumbles as his preferred method of communication. His gruff voice at times feels like a hybrid between an Orc and a large bear, but it never overshadows’ Turner’s passion as an artist. In one very physical sequence, Turner is shown using everything from brushstrokes to his own spit to create a painting that makes his peers envious.
Spall’s brilliant performance is accentuated nicely by the supporting players in the film. Paul Jesson, who worked with Spall and Leigh on Vera Drake, turns in a strong performance as Turner’s father William, a man who is willing to overlook his son’s own parental negligence in order to ensure that Turner continues painting. Dorothy Atkinson gives a wonderfully understated performance as Hanna Danby, Turner’s dutiful housekeeper. She tends to the house, and occasionally Turner’s sexual needs, with utter devotion while her own health worsens as the film progresses. Atkinson’s work offers a nice contrast to that of Marion Bailey. Playing the role of Turner’s companion Sophia Booth, Bailey’s chemistry with Spall helps to showcase the softer side of the stubborn artist. Twice widowed, Booth is portrayed as a woman who is not only willing to assist Turner with his art, but can see the real man beneath his tough exterior.
Spanning three decades, Mr. Turner is a biopic that paints a vivid picture of Turner as both a man and an artist. Leigh presents an engaging character study that takes the audience through Turner’s process when creating some of his most memorable paintings. Mr. Turner is a beautifully shot, and well-acted, film I can recommend.