The brilliant film “Mr. Turner” examines the great, albeit, peculiar, British Romantic landscape and seascape painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). Writer and director Mike Leigh (“Secret and Lies,” “Topsy Turvy”) has made a remarkable dramatic film, which presents a close exploration of the life and work of the artist, as well as the culture and ambiance of the England in which he lived. The role of Turner, played by accomplished character actor Timothy Spall (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “Sweeney Todd”) is a tour de force.
J. M. W. Turner was born into a lower class background; his father worked as a butcher. However, at age 14, Turner was accepted into the Royal Academy of Art schools in London, where Sir Joshua Reynolds chaired the admissions panel. Turner quickly joined the ranks of the admired and financially successful artists and remained in that high echelon for the rest of his life. A stereotypical starving artist, Turner was not.
We watch the larger-than-life, boisterous and crude artist travel through England, making quick pencil sketches that he later transforms into oils, watercolors and prints of natural phenomena — landscapes, seascapes, fires and storms — that capture sky, light and water in a form approaching impressionism or abstraction. Turner works feverishly, using his spit and stabbing his fingers on the canvas, as he mixes colors greedily to find the perfect effect.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the film is the way in which Leigh contrasts Turner‘s unruly and rough personality with the subtlety and delicacy of his paintings. Spall’s Turner, heavy-set and lacking social grace, harrumphs, spits, coughs and grunts as much as he speaks. Turner traveled in elevated societal circles, yet maintained his lower class manners and speech without apology. In one unforgettable scene, Turner can barely sit still as the foppish art critic, and Turner-champion, John Ruskin (nice performance by Joshua McGuire) engages in a petty discussion about gooseberries.
Leigh doesn’t flinch in his portrayal of Turner using and abusing women. Turner ignored his ex-lover, Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), with whom he had two daughters, and sexually assaulted and later abandoned his submissive housekeeper, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), as though she were a piece of meat. Only a late and loving relationship with a widowed Margate landlady, Sophia Booth (nice performance by Marion Bailey) seems normal. Turner’s closest relationship was with his father, who became his loving and willing assistant. Although the two are shown to be alike in many ways, Turner’s phenomenal talent separates him from the life of a butcher. The scene of the elder Turner’s death is quite poignant, and is a precursor of Turner’s own demise.
An extraordinary amount of effort was put into the making of “Mr. Turner.” The re-creation of England in the 1800s is masterful, with authentic looking locations, sets, ships and costumes. In preparation for the film, Timothy Spall studied painting for two years so that he would appear natural while painting during the filming.
In the film, Turner turns down an exorbitant offer for his artworks, stating that he is leaving them to the British public. Although Turner did intend that his art should be continually displayed in one public gallery built to house them in London, instead, many are kept at London’s Tate Britain and some are at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square.
“Mr. Turner” is one of the most memorable and intriguing films I’ve seen in a long time. Mike Leigh should be congratulated for the creativity and artistry of this film.