When the painter J.M.W. Turner dies at the end of director Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, we feel a sense of vacancy, an acute absence that’s not to be confused with sadness.
The reason for this lack of familiar emotion may be twofold: To begin with, Leigh has no taste for melodrama. Just as important, Timothy Spall’s performance as Turner has been so full of grunts, muttered-asides and vivid physicality that it dominates nearly every scene, even when Turner’s listening to someone else talk.
Spall creates a Turner who’s part troll, part genius, and part emotionally crippled creature who was capable of incredible callousness. In short, Spall so fills the screen with his portrayal of Turner that when the great painter breathes his last breath, we almost feel the air escaping from the screen.
R for some sexual content
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
The director of movies such as Another Year, Vera Drake, Topsy-Turvy and Secrets and Lies can be spot-on or off-putting. In Mr. Turner, he’s both.
Masterfully acted, Mr. Turner is no cinematic museum piece: It’s an interpretive portrait of a man who lived in harsh times — and seemed entirely up to the task.
Falling into provocative mode, Leigh shows us that great art (of which we see too little in the film) can spring from a harsh, even boorish source. Art and exemplary character do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, Mr. Turner leads us to believe. An artist can commit many sins, so long as delusion about his efforts is not one of them.
When we meet Turner, he’s already a well-regarded artist. Upon returning from a trip to the Netherlands, Turner sets to work, and his household begins adjusting to his presence.
Turner’s jovial father (Paul Jesson) has retired from his business as a barber so that he can fetch paints for his son and provide a hardy form of love and companionship.
Turner’s even more devoted servant (Dorothy Atkinson) waits on him tirelessly, hoping that the great man might one day leave a few crumbs of affection on her meager plate. Occasionally, she serves as the target of Turner’s sexual aggressions.
Turner also has an embittered former wife (Ruth Sheen) who cannot persuade him to acknowledge the two children he’s had with her.
Turner’s most normal relationship arrives when he travels to the seaside town of Margate. There, he strikes up a convivial affair with his landlady (Marion Bailey). He’s actually kind to her. In return, she cares for him when they’re together and at the end of his life. Think of it as a twilight alliance.
Bailey’s Mrs. Booth doesn’t seem to understand Turner’s art, but she displays a natural acceptance of the man, no small feat. Turner died at the age of 76.
The movie doesn’t so much advance a plot as it gathers scenes. At one point, Turner is visited by Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville), a woman whose scientific inclinations and observations about color fascinate him.
He sometimes visits the Royal Academy of Art, where he seems on amiable — if gruff — terms with his fellow artists, aside from John Constable (James Fleet). In on of the movie’s best moments, Turner one-ups Constable in a major way.
Turner’s also pestered from time to time by a financially challenged artist Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), a painter of lesser talent. Haydon rages against his misfortunes by condemning those who refuse to exalt his work.
Although the movie covers about 20 years, Leigh does little to mark the passage of time. He simply moves from one scene to the next. It’s Spall — with his harsh and grunting ways — who gives the movie a center.
Everyone else becomes a kind of bit player, small planets revolving around Turner’s glaring sun. John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) championed Turner’s work, but comes off as an effete snob who has taken cultural superiority to appalling extremes.
Relying on the exceptional cinematography of Dick Pope and the careful production design of Suzie Davies, Leigh creates a period piece that takes us from the high point of Turner’s success to a time when his work — which began breaking the ground for Impression — was derided by the public, his colleagues and even Queen Victoria.
True to his contradictory nature, a sales-conscious Turner bequeathed many of his paintings to the British public, turning down a major sum of money for them.
Pope’s images of seascapes and landscapes suggest Turner paintings, and the movie makes it clear that Turner was a great student of light — although it doesn’t necessarily do justice to the remarkable sense of drama Turner brought to what were called his “marine” paintings.
I wish Leigh had spent more time showing us how Turner’s artistic vision developed, but he seems to want to meet Turner on his own ground and without explanation. He compels us to spend time with an often disagreeable fellow.
I suppose that makes Mr. Turner a movie with a pugnacious attitude: It juts out its jaw, as if loudly to grunt, “Here he is. Make what you will of him.”