This ambitious, blustery period piece by Mike Leigh explores the later years of the life of Joseph Mallord William Turner (played by Timothy Spall), covering a period from 1828 until the artist’s death in 1851, at the age of 76. Copying to an extent the typical colour palette of Turner’s own landscapes and with an attention to period detail that leaves countless Dickens adaptations trailing in its wake, Mr Turner is a visually-impressive biographical film and, at times, an intiguing dramatisation of the man’s later life.
Spall is on-screen for nearly all of the film’s 150 minutes, often delivering a guttural grunting noise as his Turner goes about daily business in London, by the sea in Margate and elsewhere. This expressive ‘grrr’ can, and does, mean anything during the course of the film: a dismissive snort, an acknowledgement of somebody else’s fine humour, an approval or an agreement, a ‘thank you’, a ‘no thank you’, and so much more besides. If you thought ‘I am Groot’ was 2014’s phrase of a thousand different meanings then I suggest you watch Mr Turner and marvel at Spall’s ability to turn a simple noise into just about anything. Not that you win the Best Actor award at Cannes for simply grunting for two-and-a-half hours, of course. Spall delivers the rest of his lines with just as much relish, and this is a triumphantly-vibrant performance full of verve and gusto; it certainly assists in evoking the hustle and bustle of Georgian and Victorian life in London at the tail end of the industrial revolution.
Leigh’s film begins quietly in the Netherlands, with Turner standing atop a hill, painting a nearby windmill. The colours of the sky, thanks to the light of the fading sun, are suggestive of the pastels the artist favoured during his career, and it is an early sign that cinematographer Dick Pope’s work is to be informed by Turner’s art; later on the connections are made a little more forcefully, with ethereal whiteouts and foggy seascapes awash with pale yellows, pinks and blues. Soon, though, we return to England, and during the next two hours we see several glimpses into the man’s private life in various houses, shops and other locations crammed with the typical fixtures and fittings of the age. He lives primarily with a loyal housekeeper named Hannah Danby (an equally-impressive performance by Dorothy Atkinson), who he uses for sexual gratification, and denies that he is the father of two girls with another woman, Hannah’s aunt Sarah (Ruth Sheen). For prolonged periods he relocates to the seaside town of Margate, where he enjoys another relationship with the landlady and widow Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), who herself appears to be barely interested in Turner’s status and talent.
Turner’s bond with his father and studio assistant, William (Paul Jesson), dwarfs the other relationships. Theirs is a jovial closeness borne partly out of the sectioning and subsequent death of Turner’s mother, Mary Marshall, who passed away in 1804, and it’s worth noting that Leigh addresses both men’s deaths in a similar fashion, which seems to strengthen their connection. In this film Turner isn’t quite the same after his father dies, and there is a suggestion that the father’s death is the catalyst for Turner’s highly experimental later period, which causes much harrumphing at the Royal Academy.
The Academy scenes, incidentally, are great fun; they are filled with various highly-strung artists throwing hissy fits about the placement of their work on the walls, though it doesn’t seem to bother Turner himself when one of his landscapes is hung in an ante-chamber. Leigh teases us with a glimpse of Turner’s rivalry with that other celebrated British landscape painter of the era, John Constable (James Fleet), before cruelly dropping the thread after a minute or two. The lively and entertaining dialogue in the Royal Academy gives some insight into the prevailing tastes of the period: both Turner and Constable are credited with changing attitudes toward landscape painting within the snooty art world, elevating it to the same status as historical painting, although later we see Turner publicly mocked for his early brand of abstract impressionism at a ribald comedy show. The general public’s take on his work seems to bother Turner far more than the opinions of noted art critics of the day like John Ruskin, played here by Joshua Maguire, who invites Turner to an art discussion that bizarrely turns into a debate about gooseberries. Even comments by Queen Victoria (Sinéad Matthews), who dismisses his work as faulty on account of the artist’s fading eyesight, are merely met with a resigned shrug; you get the impression Spall’s Turner would grunt right in front of her if he could.)
As with many biopics the film is structured in a linear fashion, though the passing of time is mainly perceptible through encroaching illness and the sudden introduction of new technologies (Turner is intrigued by the workings of the camera, for instance, and even encourages the skeptical Mrs Booth when she dismisses the idea of sitting for her own Daguerreotype). The signs of aging are perceptible and the roughness of the diseases of the day allow for some fine make-up work by the team of Christine Blundell, Alexandra Joyce and Chris Lyons, with Hannah Danby’s skin in particular acting as a different, gruesome canvas. Keen fans of the artist will no doubt be able to chart the passing years by the paintings that hang or sit on the floor in his studio as well, I would imagine.
At times Leigh’s Mr Turner is a lurid, bawdy biopic and at others the writer-director successfully engages with more highbrow subjects that remain relevant today, such as the commercialism of art and the influence of changing technology on artists. He approaches it all with a masterly confidence, creating a broadly-focused and unhurried biopic that reinforces his status as the finest British filmmaker working today. Spall has delivered his best work to date here, and considering his excellent performances in the earlier Leigh films Life Is Sweet, Secrets & Lies and Topsy-Turvy, that’s saying something. Highly recommended.
Directed by: Mike Leigh
Written by: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jeeson
Running Time: 147 minutes