Watching Joseph Mallord William Turner create his many masterpieces in Mike Leigh’s absorbing biopic is akin to watching Leigh himself work. There are long moments of expansive, measured beauty; a layered application of light; carefully observed humdrum details and bursts of frenzied passion. It’s as emotionally exhausting as it is rewarding. Moored securely to Timothy Spall’s astonishing performance of grunts, gasps and grimaces, Mr. Turner captures his life with the same sweeping grace Turner applied to his landscapes.
Running across two and a half hours, Leigh manages a remarkably impressive picture of Turner’s life without formulaically moving from cradle to grave. He feels no need to reach back into his early days to draw questionable links, starting instead in the later years. He’s already a success by the time we meet him, living with his father (Paul Jesson) and housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) while travelling around for inspiration in between bouts of work.
As ever, Leigh draws on the little details moving Turner from his workshop to the fields of Flanders, the coast of Margate and the country estates of the great and good. When preparing dinner, his father and housekeeper must first shave the pig’s head, when working on a painting in the company of the nobility, he spits on the canvas to create the right effect having earlier laboriously picked out the supplies required. The same level of attention is displayed across every scene. Wooing Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), the mistress he died in the company of, it’s the gradual tilt of a head towards a seaward window; mocking the other great figure of his time, Constable (James Fleet), it’s the restrained way he greets his rival before taunting him with a dab of his own favourite colour.
Like his art, there are different layers depending on the perspective. Up close, the small details come into focus. Step back and a bigger picture emerges. Sprinkled with golden light, Leigh captures the same textured colour palette carefully swirled across his subject’s canvas. Watching the sunsets and rolling hills, turbulent waves and graceful ships, it’s possible to see what Turner saw, to grasp the inspiration that has made its way into art galleries and private collections around the world.
Despite the obvious beauty, this is no laudatory backslapping biopic. Turner the man is not held up as a creative God to be bowed down before. He’s dismissive of his children to the point of denying their existence. When they come to visit, he trades insults with his former lover while their daughters’ stand by ignored. When one dies, he has no time to attend the funeral. There’s also a tenderness in him that Sophia Booth and his father witness and a raw passion of possession that manifests itself in uncomfortable groping and rough sex with his housekeeper, a woman over worked, misused and ignored.
Now revered, in his own time he was something of a controversy. Leigh draws this out in a standout seen with his fellow Royal Academy painters. Turner strides around greeting everyone like he’s on a boozy night out before cruelly riling Constable and grandstanding with his own work, flinging red paint on a previously pristine canvas until his purpose becomes clear.
All this works because of Spall. In a long career he might just have given his best performance. Hunched forward in a permanent shuffle he doesn’t so much engage with other people as bore into their presence. With a guttural accent, he spits and spews his words when he chooses to speak at all. His preferred method of communication is a varied series of grunts and groans. Displeasure rumbles out from his throat, laughter is a harsh grating sound. When Spall is on screen, the focus invariably falls on him. He brings energy to Turner’s feverish painting, sardonic wit to his entanglements with the simpler reaches of nobility, notably a wonderful cameo from Joshua McGuire as John Ruskin, and gruff passion when he finally meets Sophia Booth in the later reaches of his life.
As the film wears on, it does begin to outstay its welcome. After the Academy debacle, the ending stretches out longer than necessary. Spall holds it together but Turner at his peak proves a more interesting figure than Turner on his way out. Scenes begin to stretch, focus wanders. There’s still time for a reflection on his legacy and the future of his craft as the credits approach though. Leigh brings him face to face with new technology when he visits a photographer. Staring at this contraption, the challenge it provokes is felt squarely in Turner’s quiet sniping at the potential of the device. That it only operates in black and white is a welcome deficiency for the man so praised for his subtle use of colour.
Turner’s achievements are secure by the end without resorting to a greatest hits compendium. As a sea of biopics continues to flood cinemas every year, Leigh has just demonstrated how to do it without either rushing or labouring the protagonist’s achievements. Mr. Turner reaches deeper into the man and his art and re-emerges with a complex picture of a complex genius. If you didn’t know Turner before, you still won’t at the end. But you’ll want to.