Renowned for his contemporary tales of the bittersweet travails of working-class life, Mr. Turner marks Mike Leigh’s third foray into period drama, following Topsy-Turvy (1999) and Vera Drake (2004).
A biopic of artist JMW Turner (1775-1881), it spans a quarter of a century as Turner (Leigh regular Timothy Spall) throws his all into his magnificent seascapes to the detriment of his neglected family.
Episodic and unconcerned with anything as vulgar as a plot, the film offers gorgeously rendered snapshots: Turner breaking from his work for the occasionally fumble of his housekeeper; his close relationship with his father; his wary acceptance by his peacock peers in the Royal Academy of Arts; his love and lust for the twice-widowed landlady of a humble lodgings in Margate; his work’s migration into a late experimental stage that invites public mockery and a withering dismissal from Queen Victoria (“a yellow mess”); the artist staring agog at an approaching steam train that shunts before it the arrival of the modern age; the spectre of death.
Leigh’s real concern, however, is tracking Turner on frequent treks designed to soak up the great outdoors, with the artist wandering upon desolate mountain slopes and grimacing into storms from the prow of a ship in order to replenish his creative bank.
His dealings with his fellow man (and woman – he’s something of a randy old dog) are beautifully played, Spall playing Turner as a man who’s charismatic, garrulous and boisterous, irascible and close-mouthed. He grunts and growls like a bricklayer, yet the rough-sounding words that spill from his mouth are educated and evocative. “Cast us another morsel,” he barks when asked if he’d like more meat; “Brook your aisle!” he spits when requesting silence. His words are precious gems buried in dirt and dust, and often he ceases to even dig to communicate, though a series of harrumphs contain myriad emotions.
Leigh makes no judgements on his protagonist but instead chooses to place before us a man both ordinary and extraordinary as he shuffles about his daily business. It is, of course, tempting to see Turner as a projection of the great British filmmaker himself, and the film as a smuggled offering of own thoughts on the act of creation, artistic patronage and critics (the last a topic that’s long antagonised him despite his own high standing).
To read as such offers another choppy, colourful layer to a work that mirrors its subject’s renderings of the ocean in depth, turbulence and heart-stopping beauty. It’s a film comprised of astonishingly handsome images – Dick Pope’s photography demands that old cliché of hanging frames on walls – and it mixes wicked humour with profound sorrow.
Come awards time, expect Mr. Turner to be harrumphing his way to the stage.