Mr. Turner depicts the last days of Joseph Mallord William Turner, the unconsciously groundbreaking British painter of the first half of the 19th century.
Turner finds himself in a time of clear decay. He lives with his father William (Paul Jesson) and his servant Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), who helps him with the needs of his house and of his body. Every month, he receives visits from his former wife (Ruth Sheen) and apathetic/pathetic daughters looking for their pension. The painter is also entering a new period in his work, a more abstract one, causing scepticism in both colleagues and potential buyers of his paintings. This crisis starts affecting his health, but Death captures a couple of characters before. These deaths give life to JMW. He finds a new partner for his late, intimate splendour.
As Turner’s life becomes more intricate, his painting style becomes more abstract, blurrier. He steps apart from his contemporaries, building a bridge to the times of Rothko, a hundred-years-time for the rest of the art world.
The story maintains Turner in the spotlight and initially builds the character through what would seem like everyday scenes rather than critical events. We know nothing about the secondary characters outside of their relationship with the painter. This translates into a really strong lead, impeccably portrayed by Timothy Spall, a Leigh favourite. This actor-director relationship confirms an initial thought: Spall was not the ideal choice for Turner, but Turner was the ideal role for Spall. His guttural, almost savage manners contrast with the painter’s sensitivity and the elegance of his work.
As mentioned, a handful of secondary characters are indispensable to construct the central role yet rarely interact with each other. We discover Turner as a family member, as a member of London’s painting community, as a science and nature enthusiast, a ship aficionado. Dorothy Atkinson is almost indecipherable as Hannah, an ill, mundane woman obsessed with her patron: a rather grumpy and unattractive male specimen, whose uniqueness, his talent as a painter, couldn’t be any more irrelevant to her, his servant and (why not) his ex-wife’s niece. Two endearing characters, Turner’s father (Paul Jesson) and Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) reveal the tenderest side of the painter. Ruth Sheen’s performance as a pompous divorcée seems extracted from a Victorian satire. Leigh fans will be happy to find some of his regular actors, like Martin Savage or the incredibly charming Lesley Manville.
This is certainly the most visually accomplished Leigh film we’ve seen. The clear highlight of the film is Dick Pope’s cinematography, and more particularly its lighting work. The DP charmingly recreates Turner’s atmospheres – yet not his late level of abstraction – with bright light coming from a sun that we can often find in the middle of the screen. Production values are remarkable, coherent with Leigh’s austere visuals: a subtle colour palette, well-crafted costumes and sets and a serene score. Makeup work deserves a separate mention, portraying the period style and physical decay – plus diseases – of JMW’s circle.
Mike Leigh deeply appropriates the painter as character. His Turner is a person that could be found in any of his films: endearing yet unlikeable, exceedingly human, using the character’s words. The screenplay, with subtle comedic moments that couldn’t be any more British, follows a structure that might seem vague due to the story’s quotidian feel and its running time of 149 minutes, an agony perhaps too long.
Some of the best moments of the film come from the brief appearance of a young John Ruskin, pubescent as man and as an art critic, using the most extravagant, unnecessary and newly-discovered words he can find to praise Turner’s work. Who, of course, answers by mocking the flamboyant youngster. Which is perhaps what Mike Leigh, an austere, compelling filmmaker, would do after reading all these reviews.
In one of the first scenes of the film, we sit in the back of the painter’s studio while he opens the window, revealing a golden, velvety light. “The Sun is God” is the last line we hear. The film, as is Turner’s body of work, is a tribute to sunlight.