J.M.W. Turner, arguably the greatest of British painters, was an uncommonly difficult man, and “Mr. Turner,” the exceptional film Mike Leigh has made about him, does not do things the easy way either.
But just as Turner’s expressive, enthralling work changed the nature of painting, “Mr. Turner,” anchored in the rock of Timothy Spall’s astonishing, Cannes prize-winning performance, pushes hard against the strictures of conventional narrative and ends up pulling us into its world and capturing us completely.
A passion project of the filmmaker’s for close to 20 years, “Mr. Turner” so immerses, envelopes and involves us in the artist’s world that we come away feeling we know what it was like to live in his times, to know him and to be him.
With such films as “Secrets & Lies,” “Vera Drake,” “Another Year” and “Naked” to his credit, Leigh’s history as a master of astute character psychology speaks for itself. “Mr. Turner” displays the same acuity, but there is more on offer here.
Working with production designer Suzie Davies and Oscar-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran (and under the constraints of a budget of less than $14 million), “Mr. Turner” creates a superb, uncannily lived-in version of 19th century Britain that feels much too real to be called a re-creation.
“Mr. Turner” is also an incisive examination of what it means to be an artist on both a micro and macro level, showing the nuts-and-bolts everydayness of the work as well as examining its deeper aspects, the attempt to move people to, as the filmmaker says, “experience the profound, the sublime, the spiritual, the epic beauty and the terrifying drama of what it means to be alive on our planet.”
Essential to all this is the work of Leigh’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Dick Pope, who has worked with the director on 10 features and has the impeccable eye and innate sensitivity essential to doing a film about as great a visual artist as Turner. Using vintage Panchromatic lenses from the 1940s on a digital camera helped in creating vistas that are stunning without seeming to show off.
“Mr. Turner” opens with one such view, of a field and a windmill in the Netherlands. The camera pulls discreetly back as two farm women deep in conversation walk toward us. They don’t notice the silent, unmoving man with a sketchbook in hand, and he certainly doesn’t notice them.
We know without needing to be told that this is Joseph Mallord William Turner, a man consumed with being himself, concentrating with a fierce intensity on observing nature and creating art. His work, we feel at once and always, is not some kind of choice; it is the product of the unbending drive of a man all but possessed (as a lifetime output of 350 oil paintings and 20,000 works on paper attests) to understand and convey what he sees.
When Turner returns to his home in London, we are thrust into a world from which all helpful signposts have been intentionally removed. Though the film covers the last quarter-century of the man’s life, from 1826 to 1851, there are no on-screen identifiers to tell us what year we’re in. Characters, almost all based on real people, are not necessarily identified either, and the language used is so authentic to the period that it’s sometimes hard to follow word for word. This is total immersion in another time and place, one in which we have to sink or swim on our own.
From our first sight of him striding purposely down his London street, Spall’s magnificently done performance gets us through this maze. Blustery, cantankerous, someone who grunts more expressively than he speaks, this Turner is an elemental man with an ethereal talent, and Leigh veteran Spall, who took painting lessons for two years to get comfortable with a brush in his hands, brings him to life in a way that is breathtaking.
Because of the intense way Leigh and his cast create character, a process that can involve months of improvisation for even the smallest of roles, even those actors with little screen time make equally vivid impressions, also an essential element in involving us in the proceedings.
This process starts in Turner’s house, where he lives with his worshipful housemaid Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), whom he both ignores and sexually exploits, and the person in his life he is closest to, his father, William (Paul Jesson), a former barber who now runs his son’s studio, seeing to the stretching of canvases and buying of paint.
Essentially a series of connected vignettes, “Mr. Turner” presents the artist in numerous situations, including discussing his work with the young and fatuous critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) and overhearing Queen Victoria, not a fan, denigrating one of his paintings as “a dirty yellow mess.”
The area getting much of the attention is Turner’s relationship with other artists, as well as watching the man work. One of the treats of this film is watching Turner experience the reality upon which such celebrated paintings as “Rain, Steam, and Speed — The Great Western Railway” and “The Fighting Temeraire” are based.
Far from being a recluse, Turner interacted with his peers, especially sharing art world news and gossip with such colleagues as the permanently embittered Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage). Most amusing is an incident taking place at the Royal Academy, where Turner does something with a dab of red paint that enrages his more sedate rival John Constable.
Personal relationships are always something of a conundrum for Turner, who regularly denied the daughters he had with fractious former mistress Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen). On the other hand, we also witness the development of a surprisingly warm and poignant relationship with the pleasingly cheerful widow Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey).
Admiring of the work but unblinking about the complex, contradictory man, “Mr. Turner,” like his paintings, is unlike anything else you’ll see this year, and that is welcome news, indeed.
MPAA rating: R for sexual content
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Playing: Arclight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles