Mike Leigh is among the most finely-tuned directors, as his movies touch upon something deep within the profundity of what it means to be human. There is a level of subtlety achieved (and an acutely British sensibility) in the persons, places, and ideas expressed and discussed as the fodder for his films, which leaves the viewer in varying degrees of awe, as to his ability to depict aspects about people in such a way that others would overlook or be unable to pinpoint in precisely the same, deep manner.
J. M. W. Turner, or Joseph Mallord William Turner, was a curious character in his day (1775 – 1851). He is without a doubt one of the most brilliant oil as well as watercolor landscape painters to have ever lived, and his work is timeless, as it speaks to the truth of British art in a way that is not duplicable. One can gaze and stare into the canvas of a Turner painting for a long while and ponder the subject matter, the artist’s intent, and the general beauty presented, garnering further insight into one’s own soul, the way in which any great art can be absorbed and enjoyed.
Director Mike Leigh has set forth in telling of the artist’s final twenty-five years of his life, an artist who was controversial to many in his day, in the film Mr. Turner. The painter himself is played by Timothy Spall, in a performance that handily lends itself to award-worthy acting, and Spall is clearly no amateur, as he (seemingly) effortlessly takes on the task. He brings to the man a real sense of sadness, brilliance, artifice, discomfort, restlessness, resoluteness, gruffness, and profundity. He speaks in a cadence that is often hard to decipher, as the tone of voice is so rough, it can be taxing for those not paying close attention. Yet the ideas conveyed are often nothing short of telling that no man of anything less than genius is sharing them. Turner is obviously a deep thinker, in order to drink in the world around him, and spit (literally, at times, as he’d often spit on his paintings whilst painting them) it back out onto the canvas in a unique and oftentimes magnificent manner.
The richness of his oil paintings, the comely quixotism of his vast landscapes all beckon the viewer into their complex and at times near-supernatural vision. His place in history is well-earned, and there is no questioning his magnificence as an artist.
What makes the film so interesting is that in watching him work, and in seeing his interactions with the people around him, Turner does not come off as an entirely lovely person to be around. He, frankly, is rather grumpy most of the time; he’s hard to understand, (both in speech and intent); and he generally is not the most respectful or generous person to most people—save for his father, William Turner (Paul Jesson), who was his closest friend and who lived and worked for and with him for 30 years—particularly the women in his life.
The women throughout this film are what make for such a rich, well-rounded, and interesting overall picture. Not one of them is merely here to describe what relation she is to the brilliant protagonist—as can often be the case of female characters in male-centric stories—but rather each is presented as an intriguing individual in her own right, drawing the viewer into wonderment as to these ladies’ lives, then thereafter also to their interaction with the man himself. It is a testament to director Leigh’s rich understanding of portraying women onscreen. It may seem to some like a small matter, but it is hardly that, as it is refreshing indeed to find women in film being presented not solely vis-à-vis their male counterparts, even if the movie is about one man in particular. It has less to do with the story itself and everything to do with the manner in which its told. The women herein are rounded characters: they’re people. They’re not instruments through which the male protagonist’s tale is told, however interesting and central his story is or may be—and very central it obviously is; his name is, after all, in the title. Bravo, Mr. Leigh.
Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen, who has previously worked with Leigh, in the breathtakingly beautiful film all ought see, Another Year—as a matter of fact, several actors in Mr. Turner have worked previously with the director) is an older widow, who had a relationship with Turner. He is believed to be the father of her two daughters, but the movie never fully gives verifiable proof of this, (yet the presentation is such that one has no reason to disbelieve its veracity). In any case, Turner seems anything but interested in being a father, and in the times that she and her children show up throughout the film, he makes a point of quickly dismissing them, with nary a brief moment of eye contact with any one of them. She yells at him for his uncaring way, and she pleads with him for support. He offers none, even when a granddaughter is born to him. Tragically, when one of his daughters dies and Sarah brings him the news, he shows almost no outward sign of remorse; although, after everyone has left, realizing there will be no comfort found in his home, Turner is shown breaking down into tears, alone in his studio, proving there are caverns of his soul simply not discovered by or depicted readily to others. Nevertheless, his behavior towards Sarah Danby and her children is appalling, and it draws the viewer out of admiration for the man.
Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) is perhaps the most interesting and enigmatic lady of the story. She is Sarah Danby’s deceased husband’s niece, (thus sharing the same surname). She works as Turner’s assistant/maid, and is the only other person in his company around the house, besides his father. Turner never treats her as an equal, and he turns to her in times of lechery, seeking only the brief comforting use of her, sexually, rather than for any real sense of intimacy or mutual love. These scenes are incredibly painful to watch, as it is apparent she wishes more than anything to be more, to mean more to him, but that is all she’ll ever be. Furthermore, she suffers greatly from debilitating psoriasis, and by the end of the movie, nearly every inch of her fragile body’s skin is tormented by the disease. She’s a tragic character, yet, she also adds moments of humor in the film, by way of her aloof nature and odd mannerisms as well as Atkinson’s skillful acting.
Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey) is a woman we meet while she’s still married to a Mr. John Booth (Karl Johnson); he is, however, ill and elderly, and shortly into the film he passes away. The Booth home is located quite a ways from where Turner lives, and the artist would often go to stay there, leasing the room, pondering life and musing over ideas for paintings. Upon the loss of her second husband, John, eventually Turner and she form an amorous attachment, which they live out until the end of his days. Their relationship is somewhat strange, as by the point you see him acting warm and kind to her, you’re already embittered towards the man, having seen his treatment of the ladies Danby. But nevertheless, Turner’s relationship with Sophia Booth appears one of mutual love and understanding, thus, in the end, it seems appropriate.
Another interesting minor character comes into play. A lady by the name of Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville), who determines herself to be a woman of science at a time in history when such a thing was hardly commonplace. Her role is minor in the film, yet her presence is more than noticeable. Turner intriguingly treats her less as “a woman” (in the terms that that time and place dictated) and more as “an equal.” Her energy is undeniable, and her obvious intelligence is forthright, uncompromising, and deliciously brought to life by Manville’s spirited acting chops. How much of this is based on the real interactions of the real Somerville and Turner, and how much is director Leigh’s artistic interpretation, it is impossible to say. But as portrayed herein, it is a very forward-thinking depiction of a woman in history who had to have fought for her admirable place among her peers. (Bring on the Mary Somerville biopic! Let’s see that story, and please, Lesley Manville, reprise your role. Thank you!).
Other minor characters flesh out this long, (but never boring) film well. John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) makes for laugh out loud moments, with his lisped voice and unimaginable pretentiousness, in his discussions about art, its value, and comparisons. The painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (Martin Savage) is brought to life near-comedically, in his antics of enraged frustration with patrons, and he is endlessly overrun by debt. It would almost be funny, if it were not so sad, how unable to catch a break poor Haydon was throughout much of his life (and as shown onscreen), which ended in suicide. Turner hardly takes pity on him, however does lend a merciful hand in forgiving a debt of fifty pounds Haydon had owed him, after a rather tragic description of Haydon’s sick family and endless need for cash he never seemed to have.
Overall the film accomplishes a lot in its 150-minute runtime. As previously stated, it does feel long, however, it never once feels overly-long, or drawn out by way of any kind of wearisome, unimaginative, or banal sequences. Every scene flows into every other, and there is very little that appears as though it could be cut, without risking mismanagement of the overall truth of vision to the story being told. Mr. Turner is a well-assembled motion picture, and to the engaged viewer, by referencing historical moments such as The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851, it gets away from movie clichés like voiceovers or even title cards, in order to place where/when events are ocurring. Though perhaps more of this could be done towards the beginning of the movie, in order to gain one’s bearings from the get-go.
Mike Leigh brilliantly paints a picture of the artist’s life, and Timothy Spall’s effort at vividly bringing the brilliant yet complicated man whom Turner was to life is not at all a performance to be dismissed. Anyone with any level of interest in art, history, or life’s interesting ways of drawing genius out of the most curious and perhaps unexpected of people should definitely take up a viewing of Mr. Turner, and most certainly should browse through his many wonderful paintings, which he left after he died to the people of Great Britain, and really, the world. For that gift of his talent well put to use and his outstanding output, we can all be forever grateful.
4 out of 5 stars.