What’s crueler to witness: a force of nature that sinks a great many ships, or a tide of opinion that destroys a lone artist’s reputation? Nineteenth century landscape painter J.M.W. Turner often concerned himself with the former subject on his canvas — sunrises, shipwrecks and such — but leave it to writer/director Mike Leigh to make room for the latter in his latest period piece, Mr. Turner, an emotionally muted biopic less beholden to Leigh’s similarly set Topsy-Turvy than one might initially assume.
After all, in a career defined almost entirely by present-day character studies set in working-class Britain — Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year, Secrets & Lies — only these two stand out as stately reflections of artistic anguish. However, Topsy-Turvy addressed the burdens of a stagnant creative partnership between a composer and a playwright, and by extension an entire theatre company, whereas Turner is more mindful of the man’s often solitary struggles with navigating the mundane and depicting the sublime, two qualities which Leigh has hardly ever kept mutually exclusive.
Amid the expectedly impeccable costume and production design of an early 1800s setting, we’re given brash reminders of baser human instincts at play as Timothy Spall’s grunt-heavy interactions with all who cross his path suggest that the Romantic figure was himself far from the portrait of sophistication. Not long after doting father and assistant William Turner Sr. (Paul Jesson) has shaved a pig’s head with it does the same razor blade make its way to Turner Jr.’s porky visage. When the need arises, the younger Turner will even hock a bit of spit if it means giving his work the right texture.
And the grunting! Each guttural retort seems to carry a new inflection as the film goes on, as if this great talent knew no other way to properly articulate himself, and it’s a chief facet of Spall’s endearingly gruff performance — the artist as mere man, that man as glorified beast. Saddled with a perpetual pout, it surprises each time his face falls soft with concern; more often than not, Turner is serving as both vessel for and evidence of nature untamed.
Save for an oddly unconvincing bit of business involving the intrepid traveler being willingly tied to a ship’s mast to experience the full fury of a storm, Leigh and his frequent director of photography, Dick Pope, capture the lovingly lit landscapes from which Turner drew his inspiration with appropriate awe. It seems all the more impressive when he captures the light for his high society brethren to swoon over, each piece a preserved oasis for the overly mannered masses, and all the more frustrating once his increasingly instinctive efforts — abstractly conveying a beauty just too great to grasp — are greeted by brusque dismissal.
Such is the brutal dichotomy of Turner’s life. Among his fellow artists, he was a self-taught iconoclast; in the face of commercial temptation and technological progress, he held a steadfast integrity. To his father, he remained an affectionate son, but to his own daughters, he hardly existed at all. With withdrawn housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), Turner is a lustful and callous partner, yet with the newly widowed Mrs. Boone (Marion Bailey, wonderful), he couldn’t be kinder.
As for his relationship with critics, it would seem that drawing correlations between Turner’s apparent resentment for critical grandstanding and Leigh’s own cagey reputation with the press is precisely the kind of conjecture which prompts art to reflect life, and vice versa.
After the better part of 2.5 hours has passed, our world-weary protagonist develops a stubborn cough and wobbly gait, as most historical figures must, and reluctantly admits on his deathbed: “So I will become a non-entity.” For any mortal man, the implications are obvious, but for a lifelong artist, the prospect of eternal anonymity is that much more crushing. If Mr. Turner is any indication, then neither Spall nor Leigh need fear facing such a fate once the sun sets on their own formidable careers.
The Upside: A slowgoing yet rich showcase for veteran character actor Timothy Spall; gorgeous landscape photography that does its subject justice without merely aping his signature style.
The Downside: Two and a half hours that definitely feel like it.
On the Side: This is Leigh’s first digitally shot movie.