One of the methods filmmakers use to convey the tactile world of a painter is to blend the emotions of the original canvases onto the screen itself.
In Mr. Turner, British artist J.M.W Turner’s luminous works are viewed often, both in the creation stage and the finished end product as they hang for inspection in various darkrooms, museums and in the mind’s eye of the artist himself. We absorb them, become familiar with their ‘messy’ brushstrokes, and recoil at the process of their creation, involving a mixture of homemade oil coloring, pencil shavings and the artist’s own spit.
And since we’re so accustomed to the images on the canvas, director Mike Leigh continually amazes as his camera often captures the indelibility of these works. A close up of one painting’s white and blue oils innately leads into the next cut of the side of a mountain, observed now in real life, but almost unrecognizable to the viewer whether we’re seeing landscape art or reality. For an artist like Turner, this becomes an apt metaphor as he struggles for acceptance in the evolving nineteenth century art world and his own nonchalance for life outside his work.
Instead of a sweeping life long biopic, Mr. Turner wisely focuses on a small portion of his life as an already well established and respected artist in London. Living a fairly closed off life, we meet Turner (Timothy Spall) as he lives with his father (Paul Jesson), acting as the ultimate manservant for his son. Not only does he fetch supplies and chop wood, but he assumes the role of business manager when a group stops by their home to view or buy a painting.
Also in this hermetic world is Ms. Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), the lowly house servant, who also serves a dual role in a utilitarian mode and a sexual outlet for Turner when he finds the mood right. Atkinson gives a humbly moving performance in the way she quietly shuttles about the house, her facial expressions, oftentimes, being the rudder of reality in the face of pompous art talk or Turner’s melancholy moods.
Part of Turner’s Impressionistic inspiration lies in various trips he makes to the seaside town of Margate, where he meets and eventually falls in love with a landlady, named Ms. Booth (Marion Bailey). Shuffling back and forth between his duties to fellow artists and critics in London — who become increasingly cannibalistic as the film goes on — and his respites with Ms. Booth soon becomes the crux of the film.
Director Mike Leigh, known for his working class depictions of British life since the early 1970’s, initially seems like an odd choice for this Masterpiece Theater-type affair. Within minutes, those pre-conceived notions are obliterated as Spall embodies Turner as a wheezing figure, full of grunts and groans that emanate somewhere deep inside his stomach, serving as his all-encompassing response to most questions. It’s the slightest change of tone that spells affirmative or negative. He’s also a terrible father and ex-husband to his family, barely giving them the time of day when they visit to show off his new granddaughter. Like David Thewlis in Leigh’s groundbreaking film Naked (1991), Turner is a flawed, malignant presence to most people, saved only by his art.
Running at almost two and a half hours, Mr. Turner feels a bit long and redundant in certain sections, but its cumulative effect is undeniable. In one scene, Turner scoffs at the more realistic paintings now being hung for observation instead of his Impressionistic ones, and we sort of scoff alongside him. Old pioneers are being left behind, and as the film slowly reveals, that’s a lost art in itself.
The film is now playing at Landmark Magnolia and Angelika Plano.