Erudite, literate and populated with a sparkling array of secondary characters, this is director Mike Leigh’s poetic re-imagining of the life of one of Britain’s most famous painters, J.M.W. Turner. The film is notable not only for the ambition of its author but also the remarkable central performance of Timothy Spall as the irascible artistic genius. Turner is a man alive with fascinating contradictions: though he was clearly never a ‘people’ person, he was often capable of great tenderness, evidenced in both his love for his father (Paul Jesson) and the woman, Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) who would become his last long-term companion. His former wife receives minimal respect whilst Turner barely acknowledges his daughters, and treats the later passing of one as a minor detail to be skimmed over like any other domestic irritation.
Leigh of course takes great liberties in rendering his own depiction of Turner, but the composite he builds is of a man whose genius was tempered by his intolerance of routine and bouts of lustful need. From a humble examination of his domestic routine in the opening scenes, including regular trips about to feed his inspiration, the film builds up a wonderful momentum. Leigh crams the margins of his narrative with the richest minor details whilst remaining faithful to the imposing central figure of Turner. He doesn’t shy away from detailing the man’s darker side and in any other film, Spall’s portrayal might have been seen as a grotesque caricature and gross misrepresentation of the artist. Yet, the effect is the complete opposite, even as Turner’s grunting assent and dissent pepper his verbal exchanges, ultimately for the comedic effect as much as for preserving its idiosyncratic integrity.
The joy of any Leigh film comes in the casting of unknowns who seem born to play their parts, no matter how minor. There’s not a false note to be heard in Mr.Turner (2014), a film that lavishes attention upon a significant artist whilst avoiding heedless veneration; examines his process yet never denies him very human foibles. It’s a funny film too, poking fun at the times, the aristocracy, and the world of artists both subservient to and betrayed by all their temperamental excesses. Leigh’s film, in many ways the finest of his career, is a work of art itself, elevating the form with its dazzling dialogue, truthful insights and exceptional attention to detail.