English painting’s renowned master of light, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), gets a suitably illuminating screen biography in Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” an ecstatically beautiful and exquisitely detailed portrait of the artist as a cantankerous middle-aged man whose brilliance with the brush overshadows his sometimes appalling lack of social graces. Returning to the large-canvas period filmmaking of his 1999 Gilbert & Sullivan bio “Topsy-Turvy,” Leigh has made another highly personal study of art, commerce and the glacial progress of establishment tastes, built around a lead performance from longtime Leigh collaborator Timothy Spall that’s as majestic as one of Turner’s own swirling sunsets. A natural awards contender across multiple categories, the pic rolls out Dec. 19 Stateside via Sony Classics following a bevy of further fest appearances.
Leigh has long spoken of wanting to make a Turner film, and his affinity for his subject is palpable in virtually every frame of “Mr. Turner,” which concentrates on roughly the last 25 years in the life of the painter who pushed landscape painting towards the vanguard of impressionism. When the movie opens, it is sometime in the late 1820s (in a welcome departure from the norm, the pic eschews any onscreen titles to mark the passage of time), and Turner, recently returned from a painting expedition in Belgium, is settling back in the home studio he shares with his elderly father (Paul Jesson) and the forlorn housekeeper (an excellent Dorothy Atkinson) who doubles as Turner’s lover. Among the skeletons in the painter’s closet are an estranged mistress (Ruth Sheen), two grown daughters and a grandchild, whom he collectively pays little mind and whose existence he denies to the outside world.
The family life is clearly not for Turner. Rather, he goes wherever the wind and the light carry him — specifically, to the southeastern coastal town of Margate, whose azure skies would inspire many of his paintings (including the much-celebrated “The Fighting Temeraire”). It’s there, traveling under a pseudonym, that he rents a small seaside apartment from the twice-widowed landlady Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), who will eventually become Turner’s last mistress. And it is this unlikely union, between art-world giant and country simpleton, that also becomes the emotional center of Leigh’s film, with the buoyant, big-hearted Bailey (who played one of the wealthy employers of the abortionist maid in “Vera Drake”) making a superb counterbalance to the feral and ferocious Spall.
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Unlike “Topsy-Turvy” (which centered on the writing and staging of “The Mikado”), “Mr. Turner” employs a broader, more episodic structure that slowly and steadily immerses us in his world during the period when he was transitioning from classical representational painting to more abstract, proto-impressionistic forms (paintings like the ravishing “Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway” and “Wreckers — Coast of Northumberland” in which hazy, indistinct figures weave in and out of radiant swirls of land, sea and sky). It’s a heady snapshot of a London art scene dominated by the party politics of the Royal Academy of Arts, whose contentious group shows provide the setting for some of “Mr. Turner’”s most memorable moments.
As aspirants like the ill-fated biblical painter Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage) clamor for official acceptance — or to have their canvases displayed in the prestigious main gallery rather than a declasse antechamber — the already famous Turner thinks little of moving in the opposite direction, even as his increasingly avant-garde work becomes a subject of satirical parody and stinging bourgeois rebukes. And though Turner has at least one influential critic on his side in the young and impetuous John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), it isn’t clear that he appreciates having him there. When Turner admonishes Ruskin for praising his work at the expense of more conventional artists, the scene feels like a direct memo from Leigh to those who chronicle his own career.
In perhaps the greatest of all movies about the lives of painters, Maurice Pialat’s “Van Gogh,” not a single Van Gogh painting was ever shown. Leigh doesn’t go quite as far in “Mr. Turner,” but his sensibility is largely the same, striving to capture the temperament of the man and his times rather than reducing them to a series of iconic images and eureka moments. Scenes of Turner scribbling in his sketchbook and slathering paint on canvas are used sparingly, and never without a clear purpose. Shooting in widescreen, the director and his regular d.p. Dick Pope strive less to re-create Turner’s canvases cinematically than to capture something of the land and light as it might have inspired him: a steam locomotive cloaking the horizon in its exhaust; boats at sea wreathed in a magic-hour glow. Whereas Leigh’s much-vaunted work with actors has often dominated the discussion around his films, “Mr. Turner” should leave no lingering doubts that he is every bit as masterful a visual storyteller.
Despite the fact-based characters, “Mr. Turner” was developed through the same improvisational workshop process as all of Leigh’s films, and the results have same acutely researched and lived-in feel. That’s especially true of Spall, who so fully internalizes Turner that he doesn’t seem to be playing the part as much as channeling it. With his great squashed-in face, Spall shows you every flicker of thought that flashes across Turner’s mind, and every wince of pain that courses through his wearying body. He conveys the sense of a man driven by a talent and passion even he doesn’t fully understand — a raging, difficult, gruntingly inarticulate soul who finds in pictures the clarity of expression that otherwise elude him. And in the film’s final moment, as Turner lays hovering between life and death, Spall discovers a particular pathos in the dilemma of a man in love with light confronted by the fading of his own.
The topnotch tech credits extend to production designer Suzie Davies and costume designer Jacqueline Durran, who make their own invaluable contributions to bringing the film’s 19th-century world so vividly to life. Composer Gary Yershon’s original score alternates an atonal woodwind theme with sharp, staccato strings to create something like the musical equivalent of Turner’s restless, roiling spirit.