Mr. Turner (2014)
Dir: Mike Leigh
“Wise men, when in doubt whether to speak or to keep quiet, give themselves the benefit of the doubt and remain silent.” J.M.W. Turner was a wise man who opted to say little and express himself in other ways, becoming one of England’s most famous painters. He makes for an odd but enthralling subject in esteemed writer/director Mike Leigh’s quiet masterpiece about the seminal artist’s final quarter century alive.
The movie opens in media res, with the middle-aged Turner already an established talent of considerable renown. As he ventures out into the English countryside to catch the early morning light, easel in hand, it’s clear that Leigh as director is seeking to match Turner’s striking compositions. For lack of a better term, the film is (appropriately) painterly, making use of the widescreen canvas in engulfing ways that are rich with colour and carefully composed. We’re watching a representation of one master through the lens of another, in a beguilingly accurate recreation of mid-19th century England.
Turner spends his days wandering the countryside or cloistered in his study, busy “painting the light” on his next canvas. His father William (Paul Jesson) acts as constant companion, an assistant and advisor under Turner’s employ. Turner’s put-upon housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) supplies his other needs – both practical and sexual – in a strange semi-abusive relationship that the movie looks at unflinchingly, while his former mistress and mother of his two daughters (whom he refuses to acknowledge) occasionally come by to harangue him and seek recompense. All in all, old J.M.W. has a lot of plates to juggle on top of trying to find peace to do his work.
Like all biopics, Mr. Turner has to wrestle with how much of its subject’s life to portray. Leigh finds a great balance here, neither compressing the timeline too much nor trying to cram every single moment of note in the picture. The passage of time is gradual and measured, with important beats hit while still allowing time for individual scenes and stories to play out. Turner begins the film at perhaps the peak of his fame during his lifetime, and is shown in a (debatably) gradual artistic downslide throughout the remaining runtime. His paintings garner less notice and money, and he’s mocked on stage in the plays of the day. As his eyesight fades his work takes on a more abstract bent, leading the cognoscenti of the time to claim he’d lost his touch. As a pure biopic it’s effective, but as an intimate portrait of an artist in decline it’s sublime.
It’s not strictly a stiff upper lip costume drama though, as there’s a wry vein of dry humour running throughout the considerable runtime. Mike Leigh himself said that he didn’t realize it was a comedy until it screened in Toronto. The dialogue is flowery and (to my ignorant ears) period-appropriate, but full of playful language and turns of phrase that delight and bewitch. The entire cast is strong and believable in their 19th century garb and speak, with Timothy Spall as the titular painter giving a remarkable central performance.
Spall’s Turner is an animalistic man, a sensualist with great appetites. He’s also very internal, often saying little and responding with frequent grunts or a snarled lip. Feeling so much of the world with deep empathy, he (sub-consciously or not) opts to take it in, mull it over, then release it into the world through art. He’s also a bit of bastard, taking what he needs from people and offering little in return. Leigh make the mature choice to show the many facets that comprised the man, and Spall responds in kind by giving a nuanced and complex performance that rewards careful consideration. A romantic sub-plot with an aloof but kind innkeeper (Marion Bailey) softens Turner a bit without giving him a total pass.
That’s one of the film’s myriad strengths – its tendency to show rather than tell. Let the audience spend time with the man and come to their own conclusions. It’s an effective concept executed elegantly here, with Timothy Spall’s acting creating an indelible character that will likely continue to receive much notice. In all, Mr. Turner is lengthy and gorgeous in equal measures, offering sumptuous visuals combined with canny and natural dialogue. Mike Leigh proves that despite his advancing years he hasn’t missed a step and continues to produce some of the strongest work of his career.