Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner begins in Holland, with two women in country frocks walking along a river bank, chatting merrily. It’s an early 19th-century pastoral scene that would have nicely suited an artist like J.M.W. Turner — although later in his career, the British painter turned to storm-tossed scenes, to skies full of bleeding light, to ships in peril, and beaches streaked with dusk and doom.
The camera then moves beyond the women to find a lone figure on a rise, scratching away at his sketchbook. It is Turner, in fact, on one of his European jaunts, seeking inspiration, poking his head up at a broad canvas of sky.
Turner, and Mr. Turner, soon return to London, where for the most part Leigh’s meticulously observed portrait of a not-so-young artist emerges. Timothy Spall, who has played a cabbie, a cook and a photographer in previous Leigh endeavors, is all grunts and twitchy frowns as this ambitious, restless, complicated fellow. Turner lives in a house with his doting father (Paul Jesson), a barber-turned-factotum, fetching pigments, brushes and supplies, and with a housekeeper, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), to whom Turner indelicately makes love from time to time — though love seems hardly on the agenda.
With the exception of Topsy-Turvy, Leigh’s beautiful, funny film about the operetta titans Gilbert and Sullivan (in which Spall played the bass-baritone Richard Temple), the director’s work has mainly concentrated on the here and now, on the struggles of working folk, couples, families, and drifters moving through the modern world.
But that same keen ability to get at the soul of his characters by watching them struggle with the mundanities and cruelties of daily life informs everything, and everyone, in Mr. Turner. Turner’s work is paramount, certainly, and you cannot help but admire his commitment, his productivity, his passion, his mounting irritation with the art establishment as he bustles between wealthy patrons and finds a sanctuary in a coastal town.
In Margate by the Sea, he registers under a false name in a modest inn run by the modest widow Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey).
“Nice little pictures, Mr. Mallord,” she says, peeking admiringly at her boarder’s work.
The artist’s alarming indifference to a visit from an ex-lover and her two daughters — his daughters, too — speaks volumes about Turner’s personality, his ability to compartmentalize, to bury emotions that only resurface via the cool ultramarines and fiery reds of his paint box.
For some reason, as Spall burrowed deeply into his role (and learned to paint in the process), one of the physical traits he adopted was an almost constant guttural cough, a seemingly unconscious snort. For all Mr. Turner‘s serious intent, for the dogged research Leigh and his cast have gone by, there is light and levity to be found, too.
Of course, there is the light of Turner’s paintings, matched and mirrored by cinematographer Dick Pope’s extraordinary framing and composition. Mr. Turner is no barrel of laughs. It’s a barrel of life — an extraordinary one.
Cast: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, Marion Bailey.
Writer-director: Mike Leigh.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 150 minutes. Sexual situations. In Miami-Dade: Aventura; in Palm Beach: Living Room.