Not for a single moment was I in any doubt that I was in another time, observing these real people going about their real lives. That’s Mike Leigh’s greatest strength as a filmmaker, the convincing portrayal of the world we know, warts and all. It’s one thing to recreate a version of the lives we live every day, it’s a whole other level of achievement to make the viewer believe they are actually witnessing a moment from 150 years ago. MR. TURNER exhibits a very particular kind of truth despite the story being mostly made up.
JMW Turner (Timothy Spall) was the greatest painter of his age. Appreciated during his life by high society, but never quite part of it, he travels far and wide for inspiration and pushes those closest to him ever further away as he is consumed by his art. Following a bereavement that rocks him to the core, Turner’s artistic style becomes more experimental, and his public image becomes one of a man losing his grip on reality. With the world changing rapidly around him, the only one to stay loyally by his side is a lonely widow he finds a connection with (Marion Bailey).
Spall’s performance as Turner is certainly not a handsome one. He makes the eponymous artist a gouty bag of guttural noises with next-to-no human feeling at all beyond passion for his art and a deep affection for his father William (Paul Jesson). It may not be pleasant to witness his deplorable treatment of everyone he meets, from exploiting his besotted housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) for occasional sexual release, to guffawing at the idea of a happy meeting with his illegitimate daughters and their mother (Ruth Sheen), to throwing his weight around at the Royal Academy and dismissing any promising artist who might compete for his limelight. It’s unpleasant, but it’s mesmerising stuff. I’ve never been of the opinion that characters have to be likeable, or even empathetic; characters just have to be interesting, and Leigh and Spall have crafted someone detestable, grotesque, yet compelling, and surrounded him with a formidable ensemble.
Fittingly, for a film about such a great visualist, Mr. Turner looks utterly divine. Every shot is striking and painterly, from the carefully arranged interiors to the staggeringly vivid tableaus we see as Turner strolls purposefully towards his next inspiration. A prominent match cut between canvas and rock face is particularly lovely. Turner’s last words were supposed to be “the sun is God”, and this theme is used to great affect by Leigh and his regular cinematographer Dick Pope in bathing drawing rooms, hillsides, coastlines and our questionable protagonist in glorious, revealing light.
The film explores a number of sociocultural concepts distinct to its period setting. For one, the idea that you could be a celebrity, one of the most famous men in the county, and yet could live anonymously because unless they moved in the right circles (and few did) people would have no idea what you looked like. The deep shame attached to illegitimacy is shown to still dominate in the 19th Century, with Turner resenting any visit by his flesh-and-blood, and denying their existence in public. One of Turner’s only redeeming qualities is shown to be fighting the tide of class-dominated society at large. He might move in intellectual circles, attend lavish events and rub shoulders with lords and ladies, but he is still a working-class kid at heart, elevated to a respectable status by talent alone. This surfaces in a scene at John Ruskin’s (Joshua McGuire) house, where Turner loses patience with the critic’s obnoxious intellectual ramblings and brings the conversation crashing back to grass roots topics with a question of pie preference.
Turner is rightly acknowledged to be far ahead of his time. While his contemporaries might have assumed he was losing his gift and/or his sight, he was arguably laying the foundations for the imminent arrival of the Impressionists and even the Surrealists a century later. Leigh manages to get his own views on art in there too; his disdain for art as a business is shown with an elderly Turner refusing to sell his body of work for a generous sum; the tragedy of the loss of true craftsmanship caused by new technologies is demonstrated by Turner’s uneasiness around one of the first cameras (he scoffs”long may it continue” to fail to produce anything in colour). These strong opinions are particularly prominent in the film’s final act, where Leigh is taking stock on Turner the man, and the life he lead.
Mr. Turner is a masterful and absorbing biopic, a challenging character piece that is both funny and tragic, and a sharp critique of the narrow-mindedness and fickle nature of the art world. Leigh brings little moments in 19th Century English high society to life, and Spall and the supporting players inject humanity and flaws into real lives, lives that are far away in time, but brought closer, made more real, by their unrivaled skill in their craft. It didn’t get much awards recognition outside Cannes, not even from BAFTA (for shame) but perhaps that’s appropriate for Leigh’s status as a dogged independent, the forever outsider. SSP