Miloš Forman says the reason he made Amadeus was because the script was different from any typical composer biopic he witnessed made in the shadow of the Iron Curtain. Peter Shaffer’s script had a dramatic force sorely lacking in the neutered Soviet-approved films Forman was used to. While Mr. Turner doesn’t play with the true story format (or the facts, for that matter) as readily as Forman’s film, it does boast a similar force. It should be slow and fusty; instead, it moves along at a brisk pace, while allowing itself an edge its contemporaries are missing. That said, it’s a Mike Leigh film; were we expecting a hagiography?”
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) is today recognised as arguably Britain’s greatest artist. He gave a weight and worth to landscapes that transformed their standing in art appreciation. This transformative nature of Turner’s paintings is honoured in the sterling work of director of photography Dick Pope. Naturally, the works of Turner inform the film’s look, but it is a compliment to both the artist and the cinematographer that the whole thing looks so ravishing. The film opens with Turner (Timothy Spall) sketching a Dutch landscape, a windmill against a tangerine sky. It’s a stirring, striking sight.
This portrait of orange-wrapped windmills, amongst other tableaus, are beautiful homages to Turner’s work, but they also serve as a stark contrast to the life he’s portrayed to have lived. Leigh’s typically extensively-researched script is a rounded and rotund portrait of the final twenty-five years of Turner’s life, unafraid to show warts and all, starting with Turner’s physicality. A sizeable portion of Spall’s dialogue is heavy wheezing and knowing grunts. He ambles about with his face in a near-permanent frown, his lower lip protruding to give an air of contempt, perhaps even when no contempt is intended. Many portraits exist of Turner, but none resemble each other. Doubtless it will be Spall’s features that come to mind when Turner is mentioned in future.
The warts and all are also on show in the portrayal of Turner’s private life. Over the generous (though rarely overstretched) two-and-a-half hour runtime, a myriad of friends, family and less-than-welcome interlopers enter into Turner’s orbit. Upon his return from Holland, Turner warmly embraces his father (Paul Jessop) and is accosted by his former mistress Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) and her daughters, who Turner scarcely acknowledged fathering. Leigh has kept to the facts as much as possible, though there is always room for supposition. Turner’s relationship with his psoriatic housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson, heartbreaking in near-silence) is off-kilter, a mix of distance and hinted-at sensuality. Leigh and Spall are attempting to make a complex man relatable, but the mystique is never spoiled because there is no mystique. Turner was a mortal man, with manly opinions and appetites. Beyond the art appreciation, the aesthetes may overlook that fact.
Cantankerous as he may appear, Turner’s a very human ball of contradictions. He does not suffer fools gladly, but there’s a lot of warmth there too for those who earn it. In Mr. Turner the primary outlet for his affections ultimately turns out to be his Margate landlady Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey, all welcoming smiles and homespun charm). The widow Booth knows little about art, but much about the need for companionship and love. Bailey and Spall’s scenes together, first friendly but increasingly tender, are the emotional anchor for Mr. Turner. A lot of Turner’s world outside love brings out his combative side.
Contrast Turner’s romance with the business of creating and selling a painting. As he and his fellow members of the Royal Academy prepare for possible purchases by Queen Victoria, the academy halls are abuzz with activity. Artists put the finishing touches to their works and grumble about their pictures’ positions. At this point the film could become the tremulous period piece it always threatened to be, with plummy chatter and a brilliantly-muted standoff between Turner and Constable. But Leigh’s camera is nimble and observant, and then Turner starts reworking his own painting with dust and his own spittle. Mr. Turner, like its unlikely revolutionary subject, is not interested in formality when it needs to get to the heart of the matter. At the height of this crude (yet effective) display, we cut to a rugged Scottish moorland Turner visits for research, with rocks flecking the hillsides like the spittle Turner used to alter his art. For a moment, we can’t be sure whether or not we’re looking at another painting. Leigh shows the vulgar realities before Pope elevates them once more. Mr. Turner is a delicate balancing act between two extremes, pulled of with élan.
For all the formal rigour, from the exquisite period detail in the art direction and production design, to Gary Yershon’s eclectic score (reminiscent of the scores of Jonny Greenwood), Mr. Turner would be for naught without its leading man. Spall’s CV is riddled with a heady mix of grotesques and chummy friends. By turns, Turner is both. He had many acquaintances and good friends; observe his friendship with pioneering scientist Mary Somerville, as played by the ever-wonderful Lesley Manville. He was also contemptuous of many others; the image presented of art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) is less than flattering in its affectations. This autodidact belied his working-class roots with an informed sense of humour, which occasionally turned bawdy. The gruff front belies a hearty laugh and a pursed-lipped smile. Spall is a fascinating watch as Turner; observe the physicality, but it’s the laughter, the anger and the upset that remain.
For whatever reason, artists older than the last century seem unlikely subjects for biopics. But then how many people today would strap themselves to the top of a ship’s mast to observe a wintry storm? The truth behind this episode in Turner’s life is debatable, but Leigh includes it. If it’s true, it deserves to be shown. If it’s not, it’s still a rousing cinematic moment, full of the real chaos that informed his later works. Mr. Turner brings that story to life, and in doing so refuses condescend to Turner or the audience by reducing it to the dusty, fussy prestige picture one would expect. This art is very much alive.