Director: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall
The first thing that strikes you about Mr. Turner, the latest from writer/director Mike Leigh, is how painterly it looks. This isn't merely a film which boasts a superficial beauty; it's a film which has a texture that you can almost reach out and touch and images which leave you feeling as if you can see the brush strokes. Leigh's films tend to be best known for the uncompromising precision with which his characters are drawn and brought into relief, but with Mr. Turner he's made a film where the image itself doesn't just blend in as background but announces itself and pushes its way to the foreground, the world of the film depicted in such a vibrant, artful way that it speaks deeply to how the protagonist, painter J.M.W. Turner, sees and renders the world in his own work. Yet, despite all the care and attention paid to getting the look right, Leigh hasn't sacrificed any of that character work that so defines his pictures and in Mr. Turner has created an uncommonly intelligent and elegant biopic that avoids the pitfalls that cripple many examples of the genre by maintaining his focus on the man at the center, getting to know him in all his complexity rather than reduce him to a series of facts.
Focusing on the last 25 years, or so, of Turner's life, Mr. Turner unfolds in a way that is counter to the traditional biopic narrative structure. The story does not move steadily up towards Turner's moment of great artistic breakthrough and triumph - he is already known as an artist as the film begins - nor does it chart a decline; there are moments when his work is dismissed or mocked by others, but those are balanced by moments where his praises are sung and it is clear that he is much admired. Rather than that prefab narrative template, Mr. Turner favors more of a vignette structure where different aspects of Turner's character are brought to light by his various experiences and the people that he shares them with. As the film opens, Turner is living with his father, William Turner (Paul Jesson), a vivacious man with whom Turner shares an openly affectionate relationship that stands in stark contrast to the way that Turner relates with most people; and with his housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), a woman who looks upon him lovingly even though he is mostly dismissive of her save when he's making blunt sexual advances on her. Helen is the niece of Turner's former lover (Ruth Sheen), who tends to storm Turner's home from time to time with one or both of their daughters in tow, demanding warmth and tenderness from him where he is disinclined, or perhaps not capable (or not capable in the demonstrative way that she wants) to bestow it.
Turner is an undeniably gruff character, one who communicates largely through a series of grunts, snorts, and sighs (it's part of the magic of Spall's performance that each noise has its own specific character and communicates his feelings on a particular subject with absolute clarity), and whose personality is probably best expressed through his work. His focus (at least within the film) is almost exclusively on maritime scenes and landscapes, and the film shows him traveling extensively as he searches for inspiration (in one scene he goes so far as to have himself strapped to the mast of a ship so that he can paint a storm). During his frequent travels to Margate he meets Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), a woman twice widowed who has no idea who Turner is (though she compliments him at one point on his nice sketches) but sees an inherent goodness in him that seems to elude most people. Over the years and Turner's many visits, the two develop a sweet and lasting romance that offers Turner some reprieve from the demands and expectations that come along with fame and brings him some happiness during the twilight years of his life.
At 150 minutes, Mr. Turner is not a quick film either in length or in pace. It moves leisurely through two and a half decades of Turner's life, not marking the passage of time in any noticeable way save for the gradual changes in Spall's appearance from beginning to end. At times it feels a little too slow, but it's ultimately such a rich piece of work that in the end it feels worth every minute. The combination of Dick Pope's breathtaking cinematography (which was rewarded with a special jury prize when the film debuted as Cannes), Leigh's expertise at giving characters room to develop and breathe in ways that feel entirely removed from contrivance, and Spall's astonishing performance, make for a film that is pretty irresistible. Neither Leigh nor Spall set out to make Turner seem unimpeachable or saintly, allowing the depiction to be of the warts and all, fully human variety. He can be thoughtless and cold but he can also be warm and loving (the difference in the way that he treats Hannah and the way that he treats Sophia make for an interesting contrast), he can be intensely sensitive with respect to his own work yet thinks seemingly little of critiquing the work of others, he is reserved but beneath that he is capable of loving deeply, though the love he has for his father and the sister who died in childhood doesn't seem to extend to the mother who ended up in an insane asylum or to the daughters he refuses to publicly acknowledge. Turner is a fully fleshed character, neither one thing nor the other, not defined in simple terms, and having now seen the performance it is baffling to me that it didn't receive more attention over this past awards season.
Beyond Spall, the supporting ranks are well rounded with wonderful, sensitive performances from Atkinson and Bailey, and by smaller supporting performances by a number of Leigh's regulars including Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, and the aforementioned Sheen (who enters every scene like a whirlwind and leaves the atmosphere vibrating for a few minutes after her exits). Mr. Turner is a film brimming with humanity and with life in every frame and in every aspect and, though it isn't my favorite of Leigh's films, it is a considerable achievement which I think will likely grow in my estimation once I've had a chance to revisit it later on. Given the subject matter (and the length) it may be that only diehard fans of Leigh will make the time to seek this one out, but it will be well worth the effort. Mr. Turner is a deeply rewarding film experience.