Mr. Turner opens in select theaters this Friday. It expands to Chicago’s Landmark Century Theatre on Christmas Day.
Mike Leigh’s biopic on J.M.W Turner is an oddity. At its center one will find Timothy Spall as the titular character, though to suggest this is a performance would agitate the word. No, the man grunts and wheezes throughout the picture, often rendering much of Spall’s dialogue indecipherable. But this soupçon of Altman-esque technique touches on what makes Mr. Turner so tough to scrutinize. In our difficulty to make out lines of dialogue, the audience finds solace in the frame, marveling at the stunning imagery that Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope display. The ugliness of their character’s features highlights an effort in atmosphere-building and behavior study, effectively recalibrating our expectations as to what a biopic can do. In essence, Mr. Turner submits that the tried-and-true-and-trite subgenre of biopics should not depend on overacted displays of histrionics, but rather accentuate the everyday. Yet in Leigh’s world, the everyday is filled with its highs and lows, with a disproportionate amount of the latter coinciding with old age.
Leigh makes the conscious decision to begin his film at the height of Turner’s popularity. Atop the artistic literati in English society, Turner’s rustic home shelters his elderly, hunchbacked father William (Paul Jesson) and maid Hannah (Dorothy Atikson). Leigh constructs a linkage between the two, whereby the father-and-son relationship bares a tender innocence, with Leigh constructing scenes between the two to emphasize Turner’s puerility. Meanwhile, that puerility transcends to Turner’s relationship with Hannah, where his lurid advances are often spur of the moment and go unabated by the servant. Amid Turner’s grunts and wheezing, it’s not below him to take Hannah from behind or help himself to a boob-grab. For a man of remarkable artistic vision, his manner of courtship is hilariously artless.
Through the 25-years that Mr. Turner covers we see him lose his only parent and come to terms with his physical and social decadence. But these are not utilized as specific plot-points or presented with any modulation in dramatic tenor. Rather, Leigh’s canvass neglects to capture any large-scale dramatic cues, opting instead to emphasize minute details. It results in something in a project that feels lived-in and present, where behavior and atmosphere supersede performance. Take Turner’s courtship of Sophia Booth, a widowed woman that he rents a room from along a coastal pier. Leigh’s tender brushstrokes evoke feelings genuine warmth between the two, conveying a courtship driven by the plights of loneliness and the flare of humanity that they find in each other.
Yet for a film about a renowned painter, there’s very little in the way of the artist at work. Turner is often seen sketching vast landscapes, with Leigh typically evoking long shots or silhouettes to portray the insignificance of Turner’s ample frame in relation to the majesty of the work that he produces. It’s more often than not a problem for Turner to contend with the fervor regarding his work. A prolonged sequence involving patron and naïve critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) sees Turner at his most bored and fussy, unable to take the interrogation and study of his work. It’s in a scene like this where one can see the relationship between Turner and director Mike Leigh.
In his early 70s, the director’s kinship with Turner takes shape as the film proceeds - not just in their tangible age but in how Turner’s work becomes increasingly abstract and disavowed by the public. Leigh’s construction of Mr. Turner is similarly a disengagement with form and has abstract flourishes, particularly in his deployment of the Hannah character, where an unexplained skin condition goes unrecognized by anyone within the film. Mr. Turner is composed of many similar subtle visual departures that emphasize the smallness of everyone within the vastness of its scope, but in this technique Leigh becomes increasingly cynical and despondent. Leigh retracts his anchor of humanism that he displayed in recent films like Happy-Go-Lucky and Another Year, charting a journey in Mr. Turner that grows increasingly weary of life itself. A final note of cynicism is uttered at the film’s deathbed, where an abject line of nonsense underscores a life too tired of itself. In his landscapes, Mr. Turner found beauty; living, however, makes for an ugly, if not accurate, portrait.