D: Mike Leigh / 150m
Cast: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Karl Johnson, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, David Horovitch, Joshua McGuire, Kate O’Flynn, Leo Bill
Eminent painter Joseph Mallord William Turner is famous for his land- and seascapes. He lives in a big house in London with his father, William (Jesson) (who acts as his assistant), and his devoted housekeeper, Hannah (Atkinson). He has children he’s estranged from: two daughters from a relationship with Hannah’s aunt Sarah (Sheen). He rejects their attempts to procure financial support from him, even when they visit with his first grandchild. When he’s not at home, Turner travels the country (and sometimes abroad) making sketches that he can expand into paintings when he’s home.
He also visits members of the aristocracy and valued patrons. On one such visit he’s accosted by the struggling artist Benjamin Haydon (Savage), who asks him for the sum of £100 to help him avoid ruin. Haydon’s entreaties lead to Turner promising to lend him £50 instead, which Haydon accepts. When his father dies, Turner becomes depressed but the need to draw and paint is stronger than his despair. Shortly after, Turner visits Margate where he finds lodging with Mrs Booth (Bailey) and her husband (Johnson). He stays there awhile and finds himself enjoying the couple’s company. When he returns a second time he learns that Mrs Booth’s husband has passed away.
In the meantime his anarchic behaviour at the Royal Academy of Arts beguiles and amuses some of his fellow artists, and angers and upsets others, such as Constable. He appears to deface one of his own seascapes with a splotch of red, then removes himself. His associates are appalled and discomfited at this, until he returns and shapes the splotch until it resembles a buoy. At this their respect is renewed, and Turner’s notoriety is upheld, along with the acceptance of his genius. Around this time, Haydon, who has had his run-in with the Academy, visits Turner and tries to repay part of his debt. Turner, whose reputation is that of a curmudgeon, relents and waives the debt.
Returning to Margate he begins a relationship with Mrs Booth; they find a place together in Chelsea where Turner spends most of his time. But when the young Queen Victoria voices her disapproval over one of his paintings, his fame and public support begins to diminish. And following an attempt to experience what it feels like to be in the midst of a snowstorm by having himself strapped to the mast of a sailing ship, his health deteriorates as well.
Biopics of famous artists usually depend on their having lived eventful, passionate lives away from the canvas, but what is a director to do when their subject lives a fairly hermetic life, and who feels compelled to sketch at every opportunity (even when they’re with a prostitute and still mourning the loss of their father)? Unfortunately, Mike Leigh never really finds an answer to the question, which leaves Mr. Turner somewhat dry and determinedly episodic.
Turner’s life did have a few memorable moments but they largely occurred when he was much younger (the movie covers the last twenty-five years of his life). His younger sister died aged four and his mother was committed to an asylum where she later died. At the age of fourteen he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts school, and into the Academy itself a year later (Sir Joshua Reynolds was on the panel that admitted him). Perhaps the movie should have focused on these events, showing us how the “painter of light” earned that sobriquet.
Instead we have a movie that begins with Turner at the height of his powers and fame, and which seeks to concentrate on his private life, but without convincing the viewer that there’s any connection between the two. Despite his reputation for being a social malcontent, the Turner we encounter here is more open and friendly than expected and appears to be acidulous only with people he actively dislikes – there’s a great scene where the art critic John Ruskin (McGuire) reflects disapprovingly on a style of painting he clearly has no understanding of and Turner soundly rebuffs him. But while Leigh may be attempting to separate the man from his reputation, that he proves to be a more rounded individual shouldn’t come as a surprise.
In his relationships with women things vary between interesting and banal, and with his visit to a prostitute having a much different outcome than might be typical, that his emotional life was unconventional is to miss the point. There’s an element of desperation in his exploitation of Hannah that would border on abuse if she wasn’t such a willing accomplice, while his “wooing” of Mrs Booth speaks more of two lost souls finding each other than anything more dramatic. In both relationships however, Turner remains on the outside, receiving comfort when he needs it, and giving little back in return. It’s indicative of the female role in society at the time, 1826-1851, that Turner does all this without a moment’s consideration (or remorse) for his actions, and Hannah and Mrs Booth remain grateful for being part of his life.
Outside of these relationships there’s little else that serves as a way of learning more about Turner’s life, and as a result, the movie adds scene after scene that either reinforces what we already know about him, or adds nothing more to the narrative than the opportunity to show off some more of Leigh’s fastidious period recreation. This is hugely impressive, though, and is one area in which Mr. Turner can’t be faulted. Suzie Davies’ production design coupled with Charlotte Watts’ set decoration and Jacqueline Durran’s costume design, and all lovingly shot by DoP Dick Pope (and all four of them Oscar nominated for their efforts) make the movie a visual treat that is as richly rewarding as the reproductions of Turner’s paintings. It’s heritage moviemaking of the highest order.
Despite problems with the movie’s narrative and structure, Leigh is still able to show why he’s one of the most distinctive and idiosyncratic directors working today, and why any of his future projects will still command attention and respect. Leigh’s work ethic and methods are well-known, as well as his organic approach to the material he and his cast are working on, and with Mr. Turner those methods are all in place, leading to a clutch of excellent performances and some splendid supporting turns. Spall is simply magnificent, grumbling and grunting his way through scenes with a sour face and occasional flashes of charm. It’s a deceptively simple and sympathetic portrayal, and Spall inhabits the character completely, so much so that you forget he’s acting. He’s matched by Atkinson, whose screen time is much less, but who brings an unforgettable sadness and pathos to her role as Turner’s subjugated housekeeper (and for those who might be wondering why Hannah looks so dreadful by the movie’s end, it’s because she suffered from psoriasis). As Hannah’s “competitor” Mrs Booth, Bailey expresses more in one rueful smile than some actresses manage in an entire movie, and her pleasant, amiable approach to the character serves as a telling counterpoint to the gruff demeanour of Turner himself.
A movie then that requires a great deal of perseverance but which is helped immeasurably by its cast and its presentation, Mr. Turner is likely to divide audiences into two camps: those looking for a story to follow, and those who can forgive its absence. With too many longueurs for its own good, the movie struggles to be as effective as it needs to be, but retains just enough energy to help audiences reach the end. It’s a close run thing, though, and with so little explained throughout, will definitely try some viewers’ patience.
Rating: 7/10 – fans of Leigh’s might be tempted to forgive the lack of a recognisable storyline, but without it Mr. Turner suffers accordingly; strong performances and often beautiful compositions and framing can’t prevent the movie from feeling hollow, nor the material from seeming as if it wasn’t quite as fully developed as it should have been.