I don't think anyone would be surprised to find I had little to no knowledge of British painter J.M.W. Turner's life before seeing this film. I approached the latest from director Mike Leigh with something of a curiosity given both Leigh's ability to craft a gorgeous film and more importantly an involving one through his characters personalities. I wondered what might have drawn the director as well as character actor Timothy Spall to the life of this painter more than their frequent collaborations and the opportunity to give Spall a leading role. It seems both the director and his star had little interest or motivation for making the film outside of the fact they simply found the man fascinating and his story worth telling. That said, the fascination doesn't always translate so well to the screen despite the fact it is easy to see why they thought this way. Leigh's film decidedly covers the last quarter century of the great painters life and is more an exploration of the character than anything resembling a plot-driven narrative. For not knowing the man or what to expect from him it was something of a surprise to find the titular character a bit of an asshole. What has earned Turner a place in the history books speaks for themselves and are in no need of a feature film so why bother documenting an unpleasant man? Admittedly, the mad artist is endlessly interesting and so, again, it is easy to see why this was seemingly worth exploring. At nearly two and a half hours, Mr. Turner can be indulgent to the point it somewhat takes on the characteristics of its subject yet it consistently feels as if it's trying to prove why the man and his stories are truly worth your time. This understanding didn't come until after finishing the film because while you're in it you have to believe there is a bigger goal to what you're seeing. As the credits began to roll though it became clear Leigh had no interest in keeping his audience strictly entertained, but moreso offering them an insight they may not otherwise receive and thus the subversive sense a case is being made for Turner's relevance. Maybe this is just my singular view given I had no frame of reference going in, but I can't help but feel in making this case for Turner I took away less than I might have had the film narrowed in and given me a specific story from the subjects life that could make a greater impression for who the overall man actually was.

Things begin in what is roughly 1826 or so as Spall's J.M.W. Turner returns from the Netherlands where, as far as we can tell, he gathered more inspiration for his interpretations of sunrises and sunsets. Upon returning home we learn of a relationship with his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) who he does little more than take advantage of while she seems to express real feelings for him. Turner is a robust, brute of a man who communicates more through grunts than words and approaches the world as something of a privelaged brat. Much of this persona is likely the fault of the senior Mr. Turner (Paul Jesson) who seems to have done little more than enable his son for the entirety of his life. In 1826 Turner was fifty one years-old and though it may be of the times, he still referred to his father as "daddy." It is in these details and how they are conveyed that Spall gives us insight into the state of mind of this seemingly unappealing man. He clings to his father and is clearly affected by his eventual death yet he ignores his own children and grandchildren seeking no relationship with them whatsoever. His ex-wife is striking in an early scene that illustrates the lack of trust he has with those outside his immediate, accepted circle. While there is never any one guiding force behind the film besides Turner's brash decision making much of the running time concerns itself with the meeting of Turner and Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), a seaside landlady who he develops a relationship with, and his membership in the Royal Academy of Arts where, like with most things in his life, he plays by his own rules. Never do we see a Turner that gives into the ways of those around him, but more a Turner who creates from his own intuition even going so far as to strap himself to the mast of a ship so that he can paint a snowstorm.

Timothy Spall is J.M.W. Turner in director Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner.
As much as the film itself is something of a droll trudge through Turner's life you can't help but feel that is mostly because the man himself was very much this way. There are moments of humor, some intentional and others of the time period, while also genuine insights into the creative process behind Turner's formula. His relationship with Mrs. Booth develops because he keeps returning to the southeastern coastal town of Margate to paint the beautiful skies her place of lease allows him access. Not being familiar with the work of Turner certainly offers something of a disadvantage in what are intended to be the "big moments" of the film, but I can only hope that Leigh's directing skills are enough to give the impression of the more notable aspects rather than those we are supposed to interpret as smaller, nuanced bits from the mind of the maker and actor bringing them to life. For example, one such scene in the Royal Academy of Arts where Turner walks up and boldly places a red smudge on one of his thought to be finished paintings only to turn it into a buoy feels like a moment. It is in reaction to a rivalry between he and John Constable (James Fleet) that Turner makes this statement as the year before Constable moved one of Turner's paintings to a less than favorable wall position. There are a few other scenes that come away with this impression, but this is the one that lingers. The other elements that leave something of an impact are the way in which Leigh captures not the paintings themselves, but the inspiration for the paintings. One would imagine with Mr. Turner being a biopic of a famous painter that we would see as many of his famous paintings as we hear famous songs in a biopic about a musician, but not here. Instead, Leigh focuses on the image that Turner sees and pulls from to create his paintings. Cinematographer and long-time Leigh collaborator Dick Pope captures the scenery and the lavishes of the time with such exquisite beauty that we see how it mirrors the beauty Turner captured in his paintings.

Spall, who is known to most for portraying Wormtail in the Harry Potter films, is nothing short of his usual excellence here if not elevated in many ways. Turner is a character who, as I've said many times already, is not necessarily a charming or appealing guy. This somber description could easily be taken from the given evidence of how he treated housekeeper Hannah Danby as he sexually exploited her for his own satisfaction while never looking to meet what she seemed to want to offer him. Turner is something of a savage in these terms and we expect the same when he visits a brothel, but are rather turned by his intention. As a piece of art itself, the film draws its greatest strength from its photography and Spall's performance. As Turner, Spall gives us both this bully of an aristocrat, the man who can find solace in the care of a woman such as Mrs. Booth as well as the inspired artist. Spall understands that Turner was largely a contradiction of himself, operating as he so pleased and doing as he felt he should in the moment with little regard for others. For me, given our title character is a painter, the most interesting aspects of Spall's performance are watching how he imbues upon Turner this idea he is inherently positioned to be a painter. Given we meet Turner more than halfway through his life we don't learn how he came to be a well-regarded artist, but it's clear from his position in society and a couple of throw away lines of dialogue that he likely never considered another way of life. With this natural inclination to paint it is made clear Turner cares more about the production and quality of the art than any of the politics that go along with it. While Turner has many an extreme facets to his personality Spall seems intent on making it clear the reason many things in his life seem of little importance is because so much of Turner's passion went into his art, his creations and ultimately-his legacy.

At the end of the film Turner comes into contact with one of the first versions of the camera and in seeing the result of what it can do fears he will no longer be of any use. It is only when he learns the contraption does not possess the power to capture color that he hopes the color of photography will forever remain a mystery. There was obviously no need for him to fear as the difference in taking a picture, no matter how artistic, is completely different from pulling your own interpretation of an image out of your mind and beautifully capturing it on a canvas. As Turner describes painting as silent poetry it also tells of the inherent depth only a painting can provide and so in return Leigh's film looks to create a poetic telling of the denouement of this mans life. This effort turns out to be more than admirable, but little more than just that; a film very easy to admire but somewhat difficult to enjoy.

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