You would be forgiven for thinking you’d be in for a tough slog with Mr. Turner. At face value a two and a half hour biopic focusing on the final years of a mid-nineteenth century landscape painter seems like something of interest to a fairly specific demographic. Instead, director Mike Leigh crafts a unique character study and a fascinating discussion on mortality, celebrity and insecurity. Smartly pushing history to the background in favour of exploring Turner and his relationship with his fickle and demanding audience, Leigh creates something that feels timeless despite how firmly rooted it is in its setting. Of course, fascinating as it is, it’s Timothy Spall’s brilliant take on the ever grunting and moaning J.M.W. Turner that steals the show and elevates Mr. Turner to the heights it reaches.
Mr. Turner follows the final quarter century of the titular gruff and eccentric British painter. Turner is adored by many as a revolutionary artist, often hobnobbing with the aristocracy despite his crude and uncivilised demeanour. Following the death of his loving and supportive father (Paul Jesson), Turner’s depression and insecurity fester within him and his fears of mortality take hold as his body begins to fall apart, his work starts to suffer, and his doting audience turn against him.
While it’s a little slow to start and the runtime is a tad longer than necessary, it’s surprising how well Mr. Turner manages to keep you entertained. Some may find the setting and language an obstacle to the comedy, but provided you buy into the film’s grand irony and quirky cast there is plenty of humour to break up the film’s sombre undertones. The utter pompousness of critic John Ruskin’s (Joshua McGuire) marvelling at Turner’s works as the artist and his housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) shout and growl at each other, beating at dead bugs with a broom from the ceiling, is one of many such moments that articulate perfectly the gulf between Turner and his audience.
Leigh further explores this contrast by treating us to some gorgeous landscape vistas before dropping us back into Turner’s uncouth life. At times the film seems like a living painting, all the more showing how preposterous a filter Turner, or people in general, are through which to appreciate nature’s glory. While the camera works wonders in bringing this tale to life, the score is a bit more hit or miss. At times it’s an effective ironic tool in flattening out the romance that belongs in Turner’s painting and not his world, but for the most part is far too menacing and teases at something momentous and terrifying that never really comes to pass. Combined with that aforementioned run-time, it runs the risk of losing your attention to the point you may miss the film’s subtle and pointed wit.
At first the themes of mortality and the artist/audience relationship seem separate, but over time the two threads come into alignment and Leigh’s vision begins to reveal itself. An artist’s work is an attempt at capturing the intangible, and so to own such a work, to hold one of Turner’s storms in your hand, then becomes an act of hubris. As Turner’s eyes start to fail and his technique and reputation take a nosedive, the unfairly embittered audience are forced to question that previous sense of pride, ridiculing Turner, not out of disappointment, but some misplaced denial.
Above all, Turner is ugly. Ugly in the way he looks, the way he acts, the way he treats those that care for him and (especially) in the way he sounds. He is precisely the kind of ugly that his paintings are not, an unpleasant and imperfect device for others to view the world with. Wherever possible, Turner speaks with obnoxious and impatient grunts, his eloquence and manners kept at bay by laziness and resentment. But, in spite of it all, Turner doesn’t come across as cold, just weak and afraid. His capacity for love and kindness is proven with his relationships with his father and later with his twice widowed mistress Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). This occasional kind-heartedness and overwhelming self-doubt still manage to endear Turner, even after witnessing his utter indifference to his infatuated housekeeper (who he was more than happy to exploit sexually) and previous mistress and children.
It’s unlikely Spall will be given another chance to shine like he does here. Spall’s constant snorting and groaning never let up and make even his weeping at his father’s deathbed surreally comical (and also give the film what could go down in history as one of the least erotic sex scenes of all time). He’s an odd little creature that you can’t help but want to protect from a world you know he doesn’t really belong in. It’s not an easy task to be simultaneously so lovable and so grotesque, but Spall’s delivery of both the comedic and tragic elements of the character are in perfect tandem and round him out wonderfully.
With Mr. Turner, Leigh has created something personal and modern out of what is, for all intents and purposes, a very niche historical biopic. While there are some fun jokes and references to those familiar with Turner, for the most part this is a film that uses the subject and history for its own cinematic purpose, instead of being a slave to them. Unfortunately, the film does outstay its welcome just a tad and some may find the subtle and sardonic script impregnable. But for those that can settle in for the dry humour and the painstakingly realised protagonist, Mr. Turner is an absolute treat.
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