Mr. Turner works fresh as a biographical film because writer/director Mike Leigh cuts it from new cloth and weaves it into a tapestry of virtuous design and sharp, poignant storytelling. It stands outside the company of most other biopics and shapes its subject not as a symbol aiming for his next checkpoint, but as an extremely talented, wounded soul, cut down by life, revitalised by the innovation of both nature and Man. His life is told as he lives it, not as we want it to be.
Joseph Turner was a great painter, admired by colleagues and patrons, born into comfortable wealth. He had an unyielding affinity for landscapes and often painted naval scenes, sometimes backgrounded by a horrible storm or a blazing sunset. A lady asks Turner at one point: What’s the difference between painting a sunset and a sunrise? It’s a more complex question than at first it would seem. Think about a sunset and a sunrise. What are the differences?
Turner’s father was an important man in his life. His mother was gone; washed out of her senses, institutionalised and forgotten. His father became his companion, his confidant, his comrade. He helped Turner in his studio, mixing dyes, preparing easels, facilitating sales. When he died, a part of Turner did too. He became depressed, shabbier, less concerned with the niceties of society. He reflected this decline in his work; not in its physical appearance, in its energy. A young Queen Victoria (Sinead Matthews) remarks upon viewing one of his later pieces: This is vile. A yellow mess. Is it? Is it a yellow mess? It looks as Turner-esque as any of his other paintings. What’s different? But Victoria is not addressing the facade, rather the emotion behind it. Something honest is missing.
As Turner, Timothy Spall is divine. I have no idea what the real Turner sounded like, or what his mannerisms were, but Spall interprets him as a gravelly fellow, perpetually scowling, substituting affirmations with grunts and groans. When he cries, it could easily be mistaken for a laugh and a cough all at once.
He builds a wall around Turner, one that’s penetrable not even by himself (when asked what his profession is, he responds coldly: “Master in Chancery”). He’s not obsessed with painting, nor is he detached from it. It behaves as a sort of outlet, one where he converts the splintered enthusiasm of everyday life into brush strokes and colours, into off-kilter compositions and daring contrasts. Consider the scene near the end where a young dead girl is washed ashore and an ailing Turner hurries out of bed, against his doctor’s and his girlfriend’s orders, to sketch her. The thrill of a new sketch subject is more exhilarating than the prospect of death; Turner informs us quite subtly through acts of defiance like this that nothing in life (including sex, in a brothel scene) is more rewarding than new, sudden discoveries.
Consider also the scene in which he goes to have his photograph taken by a new American contraption called the camera. He is like a little boy on tour at the science museum, ears peeled curiously towards the physicist explaining the Higgs Boson particle. He finds inspiration in such moments of human genius; when he witnesses a young steam train chugging through the scenery, he feels he must, almost instantly, record the moment on canvas.
Let it be known that his recordings on canvas are absolutely gorgeous. While reading up in preparation for this review, I perused a couple of online Turner galleries. I am familiar with his work, and admire it deeply. Each piece evokes a melancholy state of longing, as if whatever Turner saw is no longer there, vanished into the void of the beyond. They look sad in all their splendour. His colours stretch over each other, simultaneously accentuating and blending them (Mr. Turner also suggests that spittle was key). When a wealthy patron offers to purchase his entire collection for one hundred thousand Pounds, you can rightly see why the offer is so extravagant. Van Gogh, had he been a rival, would have crept into the viewing chamber one night and scratched all of Turner’s paintings with a fork.
Mr. Turner paints the portrait of a man (pun unintended, since Turner was not a painter of portraits), not an icon. Most other biopics focus on the birth, life, and death, pausing at integral moments during life where the events on screen trigger cool excitement in the audience, as in the disappointing Jobs (2013). Mr. Turner plays more like Lincoln (2012), with a lead performance to match. Life events are unimportant. The man is important. What the man does. Who the man is. Who the man isn’t. We are not present at the unveiling of famous paintings in this film, which would have told us nothing about the man and everything about the paintings. We are present only at the quiet, wistful progression of the man through life.
Mr. Turner is directed by Mike Leigh, that British veteran of the stage and screen. To this film he brings all that he is, ensuring crisp art direction, saintly cinematography, and above all, poetic, forgotten language. I fell in love with the English, written as if with the hand of Jane Austen, for only such English could turn a seemingly humdrum debate about the origins of gooseberries into a passage as enthralling as getting your picture taken for the very first time.
Best Moment | Turner proving to everyone that no, he did not ruin his painting with that red splotch. Genius.
Worst Moment | Nope.