Mike Leigh’s career has been dedicated to creating delicate character studies of sad contemporary British people filled with warmth and humor amidst tragedy. Every now and then, he steps out of this mold for a period piece. The costumes and sets might be different, but Leigh’s commitment to understanding and observing people never changes. With ‘Mr. Turner’, Leigh uses his pointedly humanist lens to explore the life of arguably England’s greatest painter, J.M.W Turner.
The results are just as fitfully funny, gut-wrenchingly moving, and deeply tragic as you’d expect. Plus, Leigh’s longtime collaborator Timothy Spall delivers what might be the finest performance of his career.
Given that Leigh always starts with an idea and a cast and works out his narrative and scenes through long improvisatory rehearsals, the film doesn’t have much of a story to speak of. It’s a collage of images, events, observations and episodes spread across 25 years of the great artist’s life. We see his rather pathetic sexual relationship with his meek housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), his quietly cruel rejection of his mother and children, his contentious relationship with the Royal Art Academy, his love/hate relationship with buyers and patrons, and eventually his rather sweet autumn-years relationship with a widow (Marion Bailey). What emerges is quite a complex, deeply melancholic portrait of a difficult man and a genuine genius. Turner was truthful to himself and his work to a fault. Other people could be little more than a nuisance (especially the art community and royalty), yet he also had genuine warmth beneath his decidedly gruff exterior. I suppose artistic genius and social niceties can’t always exist within the same head.
‘Mr. Turner’ certainly unfolds at its own leisurely pace. Thankfully, unlike ‘Topsy-Turvy‘, Leigh never gets too overwhelmed in the sets, costumes and world-building. That’s all very much on point and extraordinarily well done, but it’s clear that the director’s fascination is focused on the man at the center of the story at all times.
This film is a longtime passion project for Leigh, so it’s impossible not to draw comparisons between the cranky genius of the past and the cranky genius of the present. Clearly, Leigh found in Turner a bosom buddy whose commitment to presenting the world as he sees it trumps all other concerns in life. The patrons, partners, critics and even audiences required to practice that craft are little more than unavoidable distractions treated with the distain he feels they deserve (and then a little extra that they don’t thrown in for good measure). Through Turner, Leigh depicts a very specifically British genius in his natural habitat. There’s little attempt to understand his motivations and inner life beyond what isn’t observable from the outside. It’s undeniably fascinating to spend time in the theater with this filmmaker and his subject.
As usual, Leigh’s work with actors is extraordinary. Every character that wanders across the screen feels like a finely-drawn human intriguing enough to deserve a movie to him- or herself. Yet this is a character study of a single man, and Timothy Spall delivers an outstanding central performance. He trained for over a year to be able to paint like Turner despite having never picked up a brush before, and that commitment isn’t even the most impressive aspect of the performance. Spall completely disappears into Turner. He defines the role with a series of grunts, a hunch and a scowl. He’s a difficult man who appears to do everything in his power to shut people out. Yet give him a moment to suck in the word, and he can easily be moved to tears by his environment. Give him a genuinely loving person who isn’t merely interested in him for social gain, and he’ll open his heart up and become a sweetheart. It’s a rich and layered portrait that Spall delivers with extraordinary depth. The actor has done some wonderful work for Leigh in the past, but this easily surpasses all of his previous roles. It’s a remarkable performance, one that very much deserved the Best Actor prize at Cannes and is easily worth buying a ticket to watch.
Make no mistake, ‘Mr. Turner’ is not an easy movie that ever panders to entertain. However, it’s a consistently warm, moving, funny, caustic and above all truthful film that demands to be seen and perhaps even cherished.