Film Review – Mr. Turner
J.M.W. Turner was considered a controversial painter in the 19th century. His use of light and his elevating of landscape painting as an art form to rival historical paintings in England was seen as one of the key forerunners of the impressionist movement. Fellow artists recognized his brilliance as did certain key art buyers. Though renowned for his oil paintings, he became known as one of the greatest masters of watercolors. The highly underrated character actor Timothy Spall turns in a terrific portrayal of him in Mike Leigh’s intimate film, Mr. Turner.
The film concerns the last 25 years or so of Turner’s life. He is a plump, grumpy, unattractive, somber individual who at first glance reminds one of a character from The Wind in the Willows. He shuffles about, eating too much, drinking too much, and his main form of expression is a kind of guttural grunt. Whether happy or sad, he saves all of his passion for his canvas. His brushstrokes really show the heart underneath all of the gruff exterior.
While he is definitely the passion and talent behind his work, others who recognize it help him along. Veteran actor Paul Jesson plays his father, William Turner. He believes in his son’s talent so much that he has made a career of staging and selling the paintings for prospective buyers. Much like Vincent Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, Paul is the more charming member of the team. He knows how to present the work. For example, when a rich couple comes for a viewing, he makes them wait in a dark room before leading them into a brightly lit one, filled with daylight where all of the work for sale is staged. Meanwhile, Spall’s character hides in his studio while the clients peruse. The artist isn’t the best presenter of his own work. Later, after his father has died, Mr. Turner hosts clients in that same space. But he hasn’t staged any of the paintings. They just lie in a big unattractive pile.
Dorothy Atkinson plays his long-suffering housekeeper, Hannah. She is strikingly unattractive but is obviously in love with Mr. Turner. She allows him to take her for granted. He ignores her unless he needs something cleaned, some shopping done, or needs to selfishly rut away in some unseemly yet very realistic sex scenes. She is drawn to his talent, as well.
Turner is such a selfish lout that he barely acknowledges the wife and two grown daughters he doesn’t live with. He’s reluctant to offer spousal support. He often leaves his own home to stay in a bed and breakfast by the sea under a fake name. There, he paints, drawing inspiration from the sunsets and boats. Over the years, he also shacks up with the widow owner of that B&B who comes to recognize and love his talent as well. He’s a selfish, ugly, grunty man who happens to possess a keen eye and a deeply empathetic ear.
That ability to listen is what really makes Spall’s performance shine in the titular role. It is often said that acting is all about being able to listen and he gives a master class in doing just that. You can see this man observing and appreciating the world around him. Whether it’s quietly impressing a young beauty who is playing a tune on a piano, eying the work of his artistic contemporaries at court, flirting with a visiting scientist who displays the effect of a prism in his workshop, or simply enjoying a meal with a long-married couple, you always see Turner’s mind working. He is actually in the moment and digesting what is around him. It is a very subtle performance that is quite brilliant to watch.
Also, the look of the film often reflects the influences on the paintings themselves. Often using natural lighting for the period, Mike Leigh has directed this film with an eye for showing the dinginess and beauty of England in the 1800s. Recently I had observed that films like The Imitation Game and The King’s Speech, while terrifically scripted and acted, were a little flat looking. Those films both look like a well-staged piece of television. Mr. Turner, on the other hand, is filmed with the eye that those movies were lacking. This is an example of how not all period dramas are alike.
Mike Leigh has created an intimate and thoughtful look at an unlikeable master artist. Timothy Spall gives what may be a career-best performance. This isn’t a thrill-a-minute roller coaster ride. This is a quiet look at a fat, wheezy, grumpy man who helped broaden the way people see the world around them.