Abrasive and refreshingly unstructured, Mr. Turner is a vivid grumble; a mighty work of critical imagination; and a loving, unsentimental portrait of a rare creative soul. As fresh and lively as one of its subject’s oil seascapes, it’s a rich, ruthless, and profoundly compassionate study of art and love and life. Rather than nostalgia, it feels like time traveling.
Mr. Turner explores the last quarter century of JMW Turner (1775-1851), the great, eccentric British “painter of light.” Profoundly affected by the death of his father, loved by a housekeeper he takes for granted, Turner forms a close relationship with a seaside landlady with whom he eventually lives incognito in Chelsea, where he dies. Throughout, he travels, paints, visits brothels, stays with the country aristocracy, is an anarchic member of the Royal Academy of Arts, has himself strapped to the mast of a ship so that he can paint a snowstorm, and is both celebrated and reviled.
Reminiscent of Charles Laughton, longtime Leigh collaborator Timothy Spall (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) delivers a titanic, Oscar-caliber performance that’s symphonic in the sweep of its eccentricities and telling in the spectrum of its passions, playing the determined bohemian like a bronchial, randy old toad with backache. Porcine and self-involved, Spall’s Turner growls, gurgles, and wheezes, but the performance could not be more eloquent, revealing the painter in all his talents and contradictions. Snarling, he struts down London’s alleyways like a Dickensian villain, chewing the scenery and spitting it back out with contempt.
Through industrious application, writer-director and keen observer Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, Another Year) brings his hawk’s eye to a rendering of the artist. Leigh makes full use of his canvas, and Mr. Turner’s best moments – marinated in detail – are ravishingly good. Creating the cinematic equivalent of Turner’s panoramic washes, Leigh and DP Dick Pope have carefully incorporated actual Turner paintings into the film’s immaculate visuals, making the experience a lot like living inside a masterpiece.
Like Andrei Rublev and Amadeus before it, Mr. Turner is a stunning encapsulation of a life – strange, thoughtful, and exciting – effortlessly hitting upon universal themes of creativity and mortality. Less an explication of the man’s genius than an immersion into its essence, Mr. Turner has a mysterious quality that perfumes every scene. Any expectations of reverential biography are quickly dispelled by Leigh’s scintillating script and Spall’s daring aptitude. Turner is a grunting vulgarian and complex visionary, and Spall is as majestic as one of Turner’s swirling sunsets.
Mr. Turner addresses big questions with small moments. Arm in arm, Leigh and Spall sketch an intricate drawing of a wonderfully messy personality, rich with colours and textures. Both an astute summation of Leigh’s glum view of humanity and a pristine foray into the mystery of human feeling, Mr. Turner is a portrait of the artist as an aging male and visionary oddball, for whom life was an endless source of beauty and the irritating distractions blocking his view of said beauty.
Bold, beautiful, and cantankerous, just like the man, Mr. Turner is a luscious, rambling character study and a slowgoing showcase for Leigh’s and Spall’s talents, not to everyone’s tastes, but music to the ears of those on its astute and fascinating wavelength.