Years in the making, Mike Leigh’s first feature-length film since Another Year (2010) is a considered and sumptuous biopic of one of the greatest British painters who ever lived, JMW Turner.
Of course whenever Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall team up, one cannot help but to hope for a spark of the magic that produced films such as Life is Sweet (1990) and Secrets & Lies (1996) and made an award-winning star of Spall. Though Mr Turner turns to the early 1800s, Leigh’s eye for composition, interesting characters and plot tension would seem to be a perfect fit for a period of seismic change. Every scene is a microcosm of the cultural landscape which Turner attempts to capture, be it an old ship solemnly tugged to dock or a skilfully hidden elephant, an exotic wonder of the growing empire.
The film is structured as a series of vignettes, often included without much explanation or immediate significance. We are fleetingly introduced to characters that come and go from Mr Turner’s social circle, from the stuffy halls of the Royal Academy to the fishing ports of Margate where he calls himself ‘Mr Mallard’. All these scenes are beautifully composed, making wonderful use of the natural light which was obviously such an important component to Turner’s own painted works. Because of this we are never entirely privy to the whole picture, as it were. At the start of the film, Turner has already abandoned his children, become an honoured member of the Royal Academy, a supposed favourite of the king and a regular in high society. We see that he blows hot and cold with his acutely vulnerable housekeeper, Hannah (an astonishing performance by Dorothy Atkinson) and has a warm working/familial relationship with his elderly father (Paul Jesson).
For most of the film, Spall’s Turner is a grunting, shuffling beast of a man who spits and sweats for his art. Spall, who spent a number of years learning how to paint in order to play the role, seems comfortable in front of the canvas and on the occasions we do get to see the final pieces are some of the most enjoyable moments of the film. The outside scenery is beautiful. A brief connecting shot of the White Cliffs of Dover stayed particularly long in the memory- the rolling waves like the swirls of a paintbrush.
Spall embodies the role completely, but for me the heart of the story (if you can say that this film has much of a story) belongs to the women in Turner’s life. This is where I wish the film spent more time, but from the cluster of scenes we are party to, Turner had extremely complicated relationships perhaps spawned from the guilt over his late mother. From the abuse that his housekeeper suffered, to the infatuation he showered on his later companion, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), we see a fractured and distant character display both cruelty and passion away from his art. Lesley Manville makes a brief but memorable appearance as Mary Somerville, a pioneer for the female practice in the sciences and highlights how Turner enjoyed the company of women but struggled to maintain healthy relationships with those already in his life. A fantastical scene in which Turner speaks briefly about loneliness and solitude to John Ruskin’s wife is presumably imagined for cinematic licence but continues to confuse a portrayal of a man impossible to wholly understand. It certainly brings to mind Emma Thompson’s Effie Gray (2014) last month, a film which perhaps could be seen as a companion piece to Mr Turner.
Overall, though a beautiful film to look at (as one would expect with a film about art), the sparse structure and isolated scenes make it difficult to feel anything other than calm admiration for a film which was obviously a labour of love for all those involved and certainly begins to illuminate the darker sides of JMW Turner’s life-long genius.