In Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” Actor Timothy Spall plays the famous British Romantic landscape painter J.M.W Turner with grumpy magnificence. With a pointy nose, a frown permanently plastered onto his face, and eyes that are either bulging out of his skull or squinted, Spall’s Turner looks like he’s in a state of constant irritation. An observation that isn’t far from the truth, by the way. Right away we see that he’s easily annoyed, in one scene when his faithful housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) asks him how his trip home went he replies: “execrable.” He has very few friends or companions, instead seeming to be most at peace by himself during his frequent trips to the countryside to observe breathtaking landscapes.
Like a lot of brilliant but not very sociable artists, he spends a lot of his time in his head, perhaps planning his next piece. He’s the exact opposite of charming—fifty percent of his dialogue consists of grunts, growls, snorts and cackling. At times he can exert so much unpleasantness that as a viewer I felt bad for intruding on his life by watching the movie. He clearly isn’t worried about how he comes off to other people, and I suppose with a talent like his you don’t have to. And yet, Spall’s performance—as well as the movie—isn’t one-dimensional. Turner may not be the most attractive person but in his curmudgeonly way he can be extremely affectionate to the few people he was close with. He’s a grouch, but a likable grouch.
Spall’s performance is phenomenal and the rest of Leigh’s picture materializes out of it. Since he’s in every scene, the picture literally moves when Turner moves and goes wherever he goes. Always at a relaxed and unhurried pace. “Mr. Turner” is technically a biopic, in that covers a larger portion of his life—the last twenty five years before his death—in a linear fashion but this isn’t made clear right away. For the first thirty minutes or so as we follow Turner around, there doesn’t appear to be much of a plot. And only when we see a routine gradually form—Turner’s visits to the countryside, his trips to an art academy, his time in the studio etc.—and important events go by does a linear narrative become visible. However, for all of the time that does pass, things still manage to unfold on a small and intimate scale.
Leigh always puts the characters and their continuing development first. The focus of the movie is always on Turner and the important relationships in his life. Relationships with his father William, (Paul Jesson) Sophie Booth (Marion Bailey) an innkeeper that eventually turns into a long-term romantic companion and his friendly—and not so friendly— relationship with other painters. Of these relationships, the one between his father is the most touching. There’s something incredibly endearing about William’s enthusiasm for doing grunt work— buying pigments to later make into paint, stretching the canvases etc.—even at such an old age and Turner’s use of the term “daddy” when referring to him. Spall and Jesson have fantastic chemistry together, both effortlessly selling you on the closeness and intimacy of their relationship. The other relationships are also strong; the loose, casual way in which Turner interacts with other painters is always amusing to watch. The rest of the supporting players also do their part, both aiding Spall’s mighty feat and leaving lasting impressions of their own.
From a technical aspect, the picture is also superb. Suzie Davies’ production design is spot on, Gary Yershon’s instrumental score is used sparingly and effectively, never becoming too oppressive and is wisely absent most of the time from the important character interactions. Dick Pope’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, bringing lush, sublime landscapes— mainly hillsides and oceans, and usually with the sun either at sundown or sunrise—to life. Letting the audience witness the very images that Turner himself finds inspiration from. Even in scenes where Turner is interacting with one or a room full of people, the compositions are elegant and orderly, recalling John Alcott’s canvas like cinematography from Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.” I suppose it’s only fitting that a movie about a master class painter would have master class visuals. Master class visuals achieved without the use of CGI.
At one hundred and fifty minutes, “Mr. Turner” can feel long and with the deliberate pacing, it gets to be a little fatiguing towards the end. This makes reachability somewhat difficult. On top of that, I wish some of the other supporting actors got more screen time like Mary Dandby (Ruth Sheen) a woman that Turner had two daughters with. The few times she makes an appearance you can see a tension between them but she comes off too one-dimensional. I wanted to know more about their falling out. Although, thanks to Spall –as well as the other actors-- “Mr. Turner” offers an absorbing and personal look into the mind of an artistic genius that wasn’t easy to deal with.