With its turbulent swirls of black and gray, British painter J.M.W. Turner’s 1842 canvas “Snow Storm — Steam-boat Off a Harbour’s Mouth” is unparalleled in its evocation of the terror and beauty of a raging sea. There are those who doubt the story that Turner had himself strapped to a ship’s mast during a gale in order to experience the forces he so vividly set down in paint, but actor Timothy Spall, who plays Turner in Mike Leigh’s earthy biography, is not among them.
“There’s a lot of contention among aficionados of Turner as to whether he did that,” Spall agrees. “But when I look at that painting, having copied it full-size in oil, and having been in a Force 9 storm at sea as a skipper, I know he was definitely there, watching the storm. I know because of the movement in that painting, and the terror he captures, and the sense of isolation and the beauty. I just know that this is a man who knows about the sea.”
In a dapper striped sport coat, Spall looks little like the snorting, porcine creature at the heart of the film “Mr. Turner.” But the vintage pocket watch tucked into his vest — made in 1851, the year of Turner’s death — serves as a token of their shared connection to the sea. Its silver fob, shaped like an anchor, is a tribute to Turner’s love of ships and his unparalleled skill at capturing the turbulence of the sea, and it also serves as a sign of Spall’s attraction to the seafaring life, as chronicled in a series of TV programs in which he and his wife, Shane, piloted a 52-foot barge around the British Isles.
For the role, Spall, who says that he could “always draw a bit,” spent two years studying painting with portraitist Tim Wright, which may seem excessive even by Method standards, but that level of commitment is integral to Leigh’s process, which Spall has been a part of for more than three decades. Rather than beginning with a script, Leigh builds from the characters outward, working intensively with his actors so that the story grows out of their interactions and is not superimposed upon them.
“The thing is growing in front of him,” Spall explains. “During the investigation and the creation of the characters, he’s creating the raw material out of nothing, like alchemy, and what he’s creating is starting to dictate to him what it’s going to be about.”
Although “Mr. Turner” took years to assemble — and, contrary to frequent misunderstanding, Leigh rarely asks actors to improvise on camera — there are scenes that feel as if they simply coalesced out of the ether, without recourse to the tendentious foreshadowing of most biopics.
“Film being the forensic instrument that it is, it tends to pick up on things if they’re there,” Spall says. “That gives you the chance to be mysterious about it and not have to over-egg it. In a sense, it liberates you from the ego of acting. I mean, you never lose your ego because you know that somewhere along the line, if the film’s successful, you’re going to be 40 foot tall and people are going to be looking up your nose. But all your job is with Mike is to create this character and stay with it.”
That lack of self-consciousness extends even to the character’s propensity for guttural sub-vocalizations — “grunts” hardly does them justice. Although Turner was intelligent and highly curious, his formidable intellect is contrasted in “Mr. Turner” with what Spall calls his “simian, beast-like” core, as if he had only just crawled out of the cold mud of the Thames. Mere minutes after the first audiences had spilled onto the Croisette at Cannes, the grunts had become the defining characteristic of his performance, with websites rushing to count and categorize them.
“Interestingly enough, it wasn’t a choice,” Spall says. “It wasn’t until about nine weeks into the shoot that I did a grunt and someone laughed. Evidently, the crew were starting to do it.”