A warts-and-all portrait of a landscape painter, Mr. Turner contrasts beautiful art with ugly humanity. It isn’t only that 19th-century British artist J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) is an off-putting creature, dismissively grunting to just about everyone around him. It’s also that those who view his work – brooding depictions of towering bluffs and stormy seas – are mostly ingrates or buffoons. The impression the movie leaves is that Turner isn’t worthy of the art he produces, and neither are we.
We first meet Turner returning from a painting trip abroad to his home studio in London. Though he exchanges pleasantries with his father (Paul Jesson), who serves as his studio assistant, he has little time for the details about the older man’s fading health. And he’s absolutely monstrous to his doting housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), barely acknowledging her services unless he has the urge to grope at her breasts (and worse).
If Spall mostly portrays Turner as a pig – complete with those grunts – he also gives us a sense of the man as a rare talent. He speaks about the art of painting with a knowledgeable passion. And he’s deeply vexed by what the rise of industrialization means for his work. Squalls and sailing ships he knows. What is he to do with steel, iron and steam?
Writer-director Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake) suggests that Turner responded by inching from Romanticism toward Impressionism, so that his paintings began to feature less recognizable forms and more vortexes of texture and light. There’s a wonderful moment in a gallery hall where Turner impulsively adds a brush of bright red to one of his brown-and-gray seascapes, to the horror of his colleagues. It’s an Impressionistic – if not Modern – gesture, but one he quickly backtracks from by altering the blot into the shape of a buoy.
Turner’s eye for the roiling power of the natural world is one the filmmakers impressively mimic.
Turner’s eye for the roiling power of the natural world is one Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope impressively mimic. The movie opens with a gorgeous tableau of a Dutch field at sunset, as the camera pans from a windmill to Turner at work on a hilltop. Later, there’s a cleverly deceptive moment when the camera cuts from a close-up of the waves in one of Turner’s paintings to a shot of actual seaside cliffs. The patterns and colors match so perfectly that it takes a moment to realize we’ve left the canvas for the real world.
At least in the paintings we see, Turner seemed to focus more on nature than people, perhaps because he didn’t see much to admire among the latter. The mother of his two grown daughters (Ruth Sheen) is a shrieking harridan; the patron who is one of the few to support his increasingly abstract work (Joshua McGuire) is also fond of going on for minutes on end about the virtues of gooseberries; Turner himself says that he sees a “gargoyle” in the mirror. It all further emphasizes the movie’s human-nature divide.
There is one figure who contradicts this theme, however: the widow Turner courts and eventually moves in with toward the end of his life. A long-suffering yet cheerful soul played with a bright spark by Marion Bailey, she speaks plainly about life’s woes and brings out something approaching gentility in Turner. Their relationship is a thing of beauty – partly because it offers those rare instances in which Turner’s life and art seem to match.