Director Mike Leigh brings the life of Victorian painter J. M. W. Turner to the screen, with the help of a tremendous central performance from Timothy Spall and some dazzling visuals by cinematographer Dick Pope.
Covering the last 25 years of his life, we begin with Turner (Spall) at the peak of his career, a somewhat eccentric but brilliant landscape painter who commands respect among his peers, despite (in their eyes) coming from a more modest background.
The narrative also delves into various relationships over this period: his doting elderly father (Paul Jesson); housekeeper and lover (Dorothy Atkinson); an estranged partner (Ruth Sheen), with whom he has fathered children; a landlady he meets on a trip to Margate (Marion Bailey); Scottish polymath Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) and art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire).
Whilst all of those actors shine in supporting roles, it is Spall who dominates with a performance of rare quality. The physical movement, intensity, and rough edges he brings to Turner are all a delight to watch, but he also manages to use silence to express the painter’s emotional distance from people.
The slow-burn episodic narrative is effective in immersing us into his world. Details of his life are presented, but they always seem to be in the shadow of his artistic obsessions.
The technical presentation of these is remarkable, as Leigh and his long time cinematographer Dick Pope have crafted a visual look, which uses Turner’s work as a reference point. Added to this, the production design by Suzie Davies, art direction by Dan Taylor and costumes by Jacqueline Durran are all impeccable.
The choice to use the digital ARRI Alexa camera was an interesting one, as the film looks very analogue, but perhaps shooting on digital offered greater latitude in capturing colour and light. After all, embracing new methods in order to capture light is essentially what Turner was doing in his later period.
Whether you are an expert or being introduced to Turner, this is one of the best recreations of an artist, and ranks alongside Pollock (2000), Le Belle Noiseuse (1991) and Van Gogh (1991) as one of the best depictions of a painter at work.
Some art historians, even one who actually advised on the film, have quibbled about details, but the wider thematic point seems to be the conflicts a mature artist has to face when he has already broken through and achieved a great deal of respect.
The choice to eschew the ‘early years’ was a wise one, and perhaps the result of Leigh’s own introspective thoughts as an established filmmaker who still feels like an outsider in an industry filled with social and financial restraints.
Questions like: ‘What have I really achieved?’, ’What is my art worth?’ and ‘Why do I do what I do?’ seem to be in the air, both for the director and subject of this film.
Leigh has always carved out his own identity in an industry susceptible to conformity and now at 71, he is regarded as one of the great British directors.
In Mr. Turner one can still detect a defiant spirit (the list of financiers on the credits seem to indicate his determination to get it made) and a certain satisfaction in going his own way.
The result is also deeply satisfying, a richly layered portrait of an artist that ranks highly amongst Leigh’s best work.
Mr. Turner screened at the London Film Festival on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th October 2014