Mike Leigh’s latest film Mr. Turner is not only one of his strongest films to date, but it is also one of the greatest biographical films. In a typical biopic, there is always an attempt to pinpoint the defining elements that reveal the central figure’s troubled brilliance and how they differ with their peers. These geniuses are almost always eccentric, mad, unhinged, scarred, and are never fully appreciated in his or her time. These components tend to serve a great deal of purpose as narrative and plot devices. Consider The Imitation Game and how the genius of Alan Turing is often held in check by the backwardness of the government and fellow mathematicians. These things make for great entertainment. While these are events that spark the fumes of their inspiration, they can also become a distraction from the work and craft. Can there be a movie that is free of contrive narratives? Can it just be about the craft and the man? Mr. Turner is not completely oblivious to these formulas, since they are inherently rooted in the genre, but Leigh simply allows his characters to exist and breathe life into his filmic space.
Timothy Spall plays J.M.W. Turner, the English Romanticist landscape painter who was considered the “painter of light.” Spall’s Turner is rough around the edges but still has an endearing lovability about him. He is a man of few words but has plenty to say when art is the topic at hand. His paintings are indeed the work of a romanticist and yet he has no love and attachment whatsoever to his ex-wife and daughters. Turner is idiosyncratic, repressed, and odd. He is also a hard worker, a dedicated artisan, and a genius. Leigh allows us to marvel at the man, but he also stops short of using it as an excuse to forgive his flaws.
It is not entirely surprising to hear viewers criticize the film for being slow and rigid. “Nothing happens.” Sadly, this is a misreading of the film’s lyricism and poignancy. Before Leigh set out to shoot Mr. Turner with his cinematographer Dick Pope, they must have had some stimulating discussions about how the film should visually approach an artist like Turner. In the film’s opening scene, we see a beautiful landscape shot of a windmill and a stream. The colors are vibrant and warm. Within this vast majestic shot are the miniscule figures of Turner and two Dutch women as they cross path on the road. Turner politely tips his hat to the women and continues with his gait while the women remain oblivious to this man’s reputation. Although simple, this scene is very telling for two reasons. First, it shows that the film is dedicated to only the man, his work, and his natural and professional environment. Second, it sets an expectation of how the film should be received. Leigh and Pope have crafted a film that needs to be felt and experienced, as if we were gazing at a Turner painting. Mood and atmosphere is as uniformly important as conflict and narrative.
What makes the film original and refreshing is that the characters are not driven by your typical Hollywood narrative formula. They simply exist in this world. Leigh, who is renowned for extracting every last drop from his actors, draws our attention to the personal and relationships between the characters. We see Turner light up like a child when he is around his father William (Paul Jesson), who travels around the world to purchase paint for his son. There is Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), who is Turner’s housekeeper and occasional fling. In one notable scene, we see Turner grab and clutch her breast. Albeit it comical, the moment is sad and poignant, reminding us that that these two people share an idiosyncratic bond that only they understand. I will not spoil the film for you but I would like to point out that near the end, when Hannah discovers Turner’s other secret life, a lesser movie would have exaggerated the drama. Instead, Leigh settled for a subdued but mature approach to the narrative that is just as powerful as the prototypical Hollywood movie.
Ultimately, the film is about Turner’s work and the art world he inhabits. We see Turner at work as he smears powdered paint on the canvas and then violently spits on it. We see his tendency for theatricality. In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, we see William escort a couple of potential buyers into a dark room covered with drapes. William lights a single candle, and then throws open the drapes to reveal Turner’s painting. The light painted by Turner emits a glow in the room. It is a sight to behold. Then we cut to Turner, who is chuckling as he spies on the buyers through a peephole. Turner is not shy about basking in his glory and fame. He is unafraid to mock his competition. There is conflict and jealousy among rivals, but without cynicism. It is more like a gentlemen’s disagreement.
After having forced to listen people complement a fellow artist’s use of red in his painting, Turner seemingly ruins one of his paintings by daubing a blob of red paint in the middle of the canvas. He exits the room, leaving the audience to wonder. Turner returns and tweaks the splotch until it looks like buoy floating in the ocean. While these scenes do not drive the story forward, they reveal more about characters and their dynamics. However, like any great artist, Turner’s demise is inevitable for he would eventually pave the way for the impressionists. Once again, I have to highlight how well Leigh handles these moments. He does not offer us any explanation as to why Turner’s work has turned irrelevant. It just is. These events simply occur and Turner must learn to cope with irrelevancy.
Mike Leigh, who tends to make films about the present day, proves once again his ability to make great films driven by remarkable characters. While Mr. Turner is certainly his most beautiful film to date, with its lush colors, vibrant light, and precise composition, it is also vintage Leigh as he focuses on the repressed nature of his characters. Leigh wants us to explore the secrets and desires of these characters. To cry in their pain, laugh at their jokes, and bask in their glory. Leigh is a master at empathy. Even though the film is set in the early 19th century, these characters are relatable and poignant today. It is not our job to understand them on an intellectual level. We must sense and experience them on an emotional one. We must allow ourselves to be engulfed by the art. Like Turner, Leigh pulls apart the drapes so we can experience the lights of the motion pictures.
4 / 4 Stars