Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner: majestic art, coarse artist

With a vocabulary dominated by grunts, groans and moans, Timothy Spall, as 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner, sometimes seems to be making a case for his character as the world’s first human beatbox. Words aren’t this man’s primary means of communication, at least as Spall and writer-director Mike Leigh render him in Mr. Turner. But the artist was articulate with a brush — was a master of light — and Spall and Leigh, in the director’s most visually expressive film, convey this brilliantly.

Leigh has been pigeonholed as concerned primarily with performance and dialogue. His films aren’t improvised in their finished form, but they emerge from improv sessions that take months. He writes a script based on those labors, and the actors stick to it — and, often, to the broad acting that Leigh favors. As with the Coen brothers’ movies, Leigh’s films can feel mean-spirited or flat rather than funny if you’re not on the director’s wavelength. A few scenes in Mr. Turner call for that kind of caricature, and the cast sells it fine. The rest of the time, though, things stay sober, and that’s part of the key to Mr. Turner‘s success.

Another is Dick Pope’s cinematography (nominated for an Academy Award), which fills the screen with pools of light. Even Mr. Turner‘s most ordinary scenes are charged with an uncanny glow. Leigh isn’t a painter, as far as I know (unlike Van Gogh director Maurice Pialat, whose plainspoken images belied his background in fine art), but he and Pope have managed to summon the atmosphere within Turner’s images, the watery storms and the pastoral calm.

I can’t claim to have understood more than half of what comes out of Spall’s mouth, but the sounds — at first, anyway — signal more storm than calm. His Turner qualifies as something of an antihero. Being good to women, or tender toward anyone, really, doesn’t come easily to him. As the film begins, Turner has apparently abandoned his wife (Ruth Sheen) and their two daughters. He delights in rough sex with his housekeeper, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson). Yet he eventually comes to show love and affection for his father (Paul Jesson) and for Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), a widow he meets in late middle age. As the film traces him over the final third of his life, these changes to his character are charted subtly, with Leigh generally avoiding biopic clichés.

Turner’s paintings, understood now to have been major achievements, were subject in the artist’s day to the changing tides of fashion. Leigh’s movie includes a music-hall scene in which Turner watches a skit that mocks his work. It’s an excruciating insult. I don’t know if Leigh sees himself in Turner, but I’d be surprised if there’s not something autobiographical in the prickly figure Spall shows us, an artist who refuses to suffer fools gladly. (Watch an interview with Leigh online and you’ll see that he doesn’t, either.) At the same time, the director is as reluctant to celebrate Turner as a person as he is to condemn him. Rather than judge the man or his art, he simply shows us a painter at work.

That’s what the best films about painters do. Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch and Pialat’s Van Gogh, to name two such movies, do this not by copying the look of their subjects’ art but rather by reproducing the sensibility and surroundings that gave rise to it. Mr. Turner isn’t quite in that class, but it, too, illustrates where and how its subject plied his craft, with Spall’s grunts and groans gradually becoming a rich, complex kind of speech. This is Leigh’s finest film in years.

Categories: Movies