As is only appropriate for a film about one of Britain's most famous landscape painters, Mr. Turner begins with a gorgeous tableaux. An amber sky glows behind the silhouette of a windmill at middle-distance in the frame. We hear the chatter of two women, though their conversation is difficult to interpret. They walk along the path as the camera pulls back to follow them, eventually turning to find the film's subject, J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), standing on a hill, sketching the scene onto a small pad of paper. It's a fitting way to open the film: a splendid vision of the world as captured by a man who was a born observer, isolated from everyone else around him.
The film, famed British auteur Mike Leigh's first in four years, follows the life of Turner from the height of his fame in 1820s until his death in 1851. Turner is presented as an eccentric, his only close friend being his father William (Paul Jesson), who served as his studio assistant. After his father's death, Turner is even more closed off, but strikes up a relationship with Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), all the while denying the paternity of two children with previous paramour Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen). Professionally, Turner enlists the help of groundbreaking scientist Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) to better understand light, impishly wrecks havoc among his contemporaries in the Royal Academy of Arts, and goes to outlandish lengths for creative inspiration (including being tied to the mast of a ship in order to paint a snowstorm).
There's a lot of ground to cover in Turner's life, and at 150 minutes, Leigh crams a good bit of it into the film. But the joy of this film comes not from the big moments but the little ones; like one of Turner's paintings, it's the details that prove most captivating.
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If it's not clear from the above description, Mr. Turner is a film that doesn't move forward narratively so much as it ambles (though, it should be said, perhaps for too long). This is typical of Leigh's films: more often than not, they're slices-of-life that are more interested in the characters than the story itself. Much of this is a byproduct of the director's famous process, rehearsing for several months and collaborating with the actors to create the film's final script. For those willing to wander with him, Leigh's films are small-scale wonders that feel heartbreakingly human.
Mr. Turner is no exception. Again, the canvas that Leigh and his cast use is expansive in narrative scope, but it's filled with minor interactions and grace-note details that come together to form the larger picture. Collaborating with longtime cinematographer Dick Pope, Leigh presents several arresting visuals that could practically be paintings themselves, presenting the world around Turner as he must have seen it in his mind's eye. It makes sense, since the film itself is structured much like one of Turner's paintings. Turner was known as a forbearer of the Impressionist movement, where seemingly random brushstrokes combined to create a more-representative picture on a macro level. The same is true in Leigh's film: every scene, many of which seem to only be connected by the presence of the protagonist, combine to create a surprisingly-felt portrait of the man in all his contradictions.
Though, it should be clear, this is in no small part thanks to Spall's incredible performance. He has always been a reliable actor, and having the opportunity to take center stage here reveals just how well he can command the screen. His Turner is reticent and introverted, mostly communicating through various grunts, sighs, and harrumphs. Yet Spall is able to make each one of these guttural sounds communicate a different meaning, a triumph of emphasis and body language that makes his performance even more admirable. He fully embodies this role, and though all of Turner's rougher edges, never condones or condemns the choices he made in his personal life. It's a stunning turn.
The rest of the cast, too, is exception. Jesson's jolly performance as Turner's father brings the film roaring to life, making it clear why he would be the only one who could make Turner come across as jovial. Bailey, too, does terrifically understated work as Mrs. Booth, hinting at the sadness in her life and the happiness she finds in Turner's company. Manville does wonders with her single scene, suggesting that Somerville is worthy of her own film. And Dorothy Atkinson is terrific as Turner's maid, Hannah, whom Turner exploits sexually but nevertheless carries a torch for her employer. She turns Hannah's conflicting desires and actions into a study of a complex woman, one who's story is happening on the sideline but is intrinsically linked to Turner's.
From scene to scene, Mr. Turner can be a bit of a slog, seemingly going nowhere with a central character whose warts can tough to stomach at times. Yet, when looked at as a whole, it's an excellent portrait of a man in all his faults and glories. Thanks to the stellar acting and Leigh's steady direction, it comes together into something that's paradoxically expansive and intimate, but always beautiful. A-