I have regrettably not seen many of Mike Leigh’s films, but this has not prevented me from enjoying “Mr. Turner.” It is the second biopic he has made and the second one about a 19th century figure, after the Gilbert & Sullivan film “Topsy-Turvy.” That film was bursting to the seams with humor and visual excess. This film is more subdued but just as beautiful, and more focused.
“Mr. Turner” is the story of the great painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) in the last 25 years of his life. It is a long film at 150 minutes, but its leisurely pace works in its favor. It allows the film to pay tribute to the vividness and sprawling nature of human life.
Spall is magnetic as Turner. He grunts and snorts through scenes like a highly intelligent boar. Spall modulates himself perfectly in scenes where he is being sincere or saying goodbye to someone important in his life. It is also the film’s greatest paradox that this singular individual is most entertaining when he is interacting with other people.
There’s his loving relationship with his father (Paul Jesson), who serves as his assistant. There are his friendships with his fellow painters and a female scientist (Lesley Manville) who influences his ideas about color. There’s also his occasionally sexual relationship with his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) and his final romantic relationship with the owner of a boarding house (Marion Bailey, who is Mike Leigh’s partner). In addition, there’s his passive-aggressive relationship with an art critic (Joshua McGuire) who’s so hilariously pompous that he belongs in a P.G. Wodehouse novel. All of these people orbit around Turner like planets around a sun, and they add to the film’s portrait of the man.
The cinematography was justly nominated for an Oscar. The film makes good use of details, from lovingly shot paintings to the pig’s head that Turner eats for breakfast one day. The dialogue is excellent. Turner’s formal manner of speech is a delight to hear, especially when it is used to insult people.
This is a finely made film. The production values are high, and it gradually becomes a pleasure just to see Turner live. Mike Leigh has made a wonderful film about life and art that will be admired for years to come.