Dec 17, 2014
Leave it to Mike Leigh to make a biopic that does not feel like one. Mr. Turner is a meditation on the mystery of talent, on the lack of a commensurate relationship between genius and virtue, on the solitary pursuit of art and creativity. It is not, like the two other biopics of British geniuses currently vying for awards, deliberately contrived to be inspiring. There are no forced moments of discovery or redemption, or triumph over adversity. Leigh knows life is adverse: get over it.
Mr. Turner is the portrait of the artist as a disgruntled, and grunting, man. The excellent Timothy Spall, a wonderful presence in many a Mike Leigh film, plays Joseph Mallord William Turner, one of the greatest painters in the history of Western art, a visionary genius. The film devotes itself to the last 25 years of Turner's life, thankfully sparing us Freudian flashbacks into his childhood or the ridiculous compression of an entire life into two or three hours.
This is a much smarter way to make a biopic. But then again, this is Mike Leigh.
Spall's Turner seems to dislike the company of most humans and spends his days quietly and furiously working on his art. This may be the only biopic in which watching an artist paint is not like watching paint dry, and that is because Leigh shows the work of the painter as a process of preparation, experimentation, research, discovery, and as powerful action. It is work, rising before sunrise to capture the light. It is not divine inspiration.
Turner was a great artist, hence he spent most of his time wanting to paint. Sensitive to nature and to light, he was much less sensitive to some of his fellow human beings. He refused to recognize the daughters she had with his first mistress. He was abusive to a mentally challenged maid who adored him. He loved his dad, with whom he grew up, as his mother died (in an insane asylum) when he was a boy. He didn't suffer critics, even champions of his work like John Ruskin, gladly. Leigh portrays Ruskin as a flamboyant pontificator, and this seems a bit unfair, but it confirmed for me Leigh's deeply felt identification with his subject, a fellow artist.
The movie takes a while to establish Turner's world, and the first half seems to ramble along without much incident. But Leigh subtly and masterfully paints the portrait of this man and his time, the Victorian era, straight-laced and uncomprehending of mavericks like him. He shows up at the Royal Academy of Painting, a fusty place, where other very good artists like Constable are painting by the book, whereas Turner has freed himself to push the limits of his art further and further, until some critics, the Queen herself and an obtuse public deride the abstraction of his later works. He could have painted portraits of aristocrats and their hunting dogs and retired to greater wealth and fame, but he chose to keep searching. Turner was ahead of his time. He was interested in the experience of nature, in transmuting it not as faithfully and realistically as his fellow members of the Academy, but impressionistically, from within. He fastens himself to a ship's mast in a storm to find out exactly how that looks and feels like.
As in all of Leigh's films, the supporting cast is a perfect ensemble of character actors, acting like a single organism in harmony with their period, while sharply etching their individual characters. In my mind, any and all awards for best supporting actress should go to Marion Bailey as Mrs. Booth, a widow who rents Turner a room in Margate and with her sensible, natural wisdom becomes his companion at the end of his life. Dorothy Atkinson is also spectacular as the poor maid, beset with psoriasis, who loved Turner silently as he took advantage of her adoration.
There are a couple of wonderful moments where art meets science, as when Mary Somerville (the great Leslie Manville) pays Turner a visit, and a moment, elegiac, yet full of wonder, when Turner discovers the daguerrotype, which with one pouf of smoke and a blinding flash captures his image with far less exertion than any painting.
And that brings us to the other major character in the movie, which is light, gorgeously rendered by cinematographer Dick Pope, who wisely does not attempt to imitate Turner, but who gives the film the miraculous, multifaceted light that captured the painter's eye and his imagination.
Most commercial movies try too hard to anticipate our feelings, to get us in their corner, using well worn scenes and lines which heroic actors fight to make heartfelt and convincing. And then one sees a film like Mr. Turner and appreciates the quiet mastery and the exacting excellence of Mike Leigh. There is not one cheap, facile or crowd pleasing bone in his body, and yet his films are deeply emotional, and truly human.