Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner is a fittingly fascinating portrait of the eccentric and talented British painter, J.M.W. Turner. The central role is filled soundly by Timothy Spall, whose depiction of the titular artist starts as an odd assortment of character traits but evolves into a wholly realized, tragic, and sheltered man. The film has a remarkable sense of time and place, grounding itself in early 19th century Britain with an eye for details surrounding difficult travel, life-threatening illnesses, and the narrow viewpoint of many citizens in a world so far from its most important achievements. What emerges as some of the most compelling scenes in the film are not ones of particular substance, but of painterly shots that capture the beauty of the filmic image: the stillness of landscapes and richness of colors, or even the slight movement coming from nature that deepens the film’s artistic impression. Dick Pope’s cinematography is some of the best of the year, and it infuses grander life into Mike Leigh’s thoroughly complex drama.
J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) lives with his father, William (Paul Jesson), and his housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson). The former worries of his son’s travels, hearing that he had perished in a shipwreck, but Turner’s return is welcomed by both of his companions. Hannah is a woman that is emotionally tormented by her love for Turner, which is never explicitly expressed by either; he uses her for sexual desire but doesn’t recognize her emotional attachment. That’s one of the many tragic signifiers of these characters, with Turner occupying almost all of them. His past is shrouded by others coming back to haunt him, mainly his ex-lover and her two daughters, both of whom he disowns. Many ask if he has a family or children, and he always lies; he even uses an alias in other towns, presumably to save his public image, or whatever remains of it. As an angry member of the Royal Academy of Arts, his work goes through bouts of being praised and dismissed. The art world is unpredictable.
Mike Leigh’s film covers so much ground in Turner’s life, encapsulating over a quarter of a century to tell of his final years. While Turner travels, he begins to fall for a twice-widowed innkeeper named Sophia (Marion Bailey). Within that relationship and a few telling scenes where they discuss their past, Turner’s tragedy comes to the forefront. He’s a profound man full of sorrow and regret. Spall’s performance is shockingly felt and keenly aware of its jagged edges, considering Turner’s pronounced, repugnant actions toward people close to him throughout the film. He likes to make a mockery out of other artists, often defacing their works or demoralizing them even if they enjoy or support his work. He’s concerned about self-image and ultimately cares deeply about not only what others think about him, but what they think about his work. His paintings are full of landscapes, sea wrecks, naval ships, and stark colors, but very rarely use people. That leads to much disconnect with a changing artistic vision by buyers.
Spall’s tremendous lead characterization drives the film’s dramatic impact. He’s in practically every scene in the sprawling, 150-minute running time, and his role grows more fruitful and compelling as it gains traction. The supporting performances, however numerous they may be, are equally affecting, with Lesley Manville having a delightful turn as a progressive Scottish scientist with eclectic ideas. While the film is self-serious at times and has a favorable eye toward tragic drama, there’s plenty of humor littered between scenes bookended by serious fare. Mike Leigh’s script understands the potential of his characters to not be the most serious citizens alive, a trend in historical dramas that fills their atmospheres with stuffy, self-righteous air. Even the score from Gary Yershon is absorbing and unavoidable, making an impression on every scene. Mr. Turner is one of the most accomplished films of the year, and a compelling character study of a fascinating man.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)