Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” is an atypical biography drama about the life and career of a flawed but talented artist. Rather than focusing on the highlights of his career like average biography movies would, this somber film slowly lets us immerse into the daily mood of its period background, and it sometimes captures moments of sublime beauty amidst its hero’s ungainly mundane daily life. The movie is slow and restrained throughout its long running time, but it comes with small but insightful glimpses into the passion and dedication inside its plain, sullen, and cranky hero, whose blunt personality makes a fascinating contrast with his inspiring art.
While some famous artists like Van Gogh were never recognized during their life, many others enjoyed success along with growing reputation in contrast, and British painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) belongs to the latter group. Highly regarded by his contemporary peers and others, this artist, who was called ‘the painter of light’, had a successful career during his life, and many of his works have been regarded as precursor to Impressionism for their striking painting style.
After the pastoral opening scene which shows Turner (Timothy Spall, who won Best Actor award for this film at the Cannes Film Festival in last year) being occupied with sketching one quiet morning on the countryside of Holland, we see him returning to his home in London. Turner has lived closely with his aging father William (Paul Jesson) for many years, and it can easily be inferred that Turner depends a lot on William and their middle-aged housemaid Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) in many ways. As a matter of fact, William and Hannah sometimes look like Turner’s servants as we observe their daily life, and it turns out Hannah is also sexually exploited by Turner at times – but she does not mind that much probably because of her personal feeling toward him.
While William goes outside for buying color pigments and works on wooden frames for his son and Hannah takes care of their house, Turner can fully focus on painting at his house unless he has to deal with visitors who may buy his recently completed works. He also meet his several peers or attend the exhibitions held at the Royal Academy, and we cannot help but notice Benjamin Robert Haydon (Martin Savage), a struggling painter who always needs money but never dials down his stubbornness in spite of his desperate economic situation. When Turner offers 50 pound instead of 100 pound to him, he becomes angry and refuses it even though he really needs money right now (Haydon’s real life was usually in such financial troubles as depicted in the film, and that eventually led to his tragic suicide in 1846).
A couple of crucial turns in Turner’s life happen in the meanwhile, but the movie maintains its reserved attitude while not underlying them, and they are viewed equally along with the other small moments in the film as slices of his life to give us some insights on his problematic personality. Being a very unhappy man with lot of unresolved feelings accumulated inside him, Turner shows his unpleasant sides especially when he is visited by his former mistress and their two illegitimate daughters, and he never recognizes his daughters as his children while keeping whatever he feels and thinks to himself as usual.
It is implied that his abrasive/eccentric sides have been tolerated by others because of his artistic genius and reputation, and Turner probably knows that he would become just like Hayden if he were without his fame and success. While it certainly hurts him when his later works get ridicules once Queen Victoria throws a snarky comment on one of his latest works, he sticks to his artistic integrity even when a rich man offers him a handsome payment for every remaining work of his, and he continues to work in his way until he is no longer healthy enough to go around the country for inspiration, let alone to hold a brush.
Compared to the director/writer Mike Leigh’s notable modern urban dramas such as “Secrets & Lies” (1996) and “Another Year” (2010), “Mr. Turner” looks like an abnormality, but Leigh previously made a fabulous period film “Topsy-Turvy” (1999), and “Mr. Turner” is also a superb technical achievement decorated with vivid period details. The cinematographer Dick Pope provides a number of remarkable visual sights which function as the window to Turner’s artistic inspiration, and he deservedly received a special award at the Cannes Film Festival in last year for his superlative work in this film and then recently garnered an Oscar nomination in this year (the movie was also Oscar-nominated for Best Costume, Best Production Design, and Best score).
The cast of the film includes many of Mike Leigh’s usual collaborators, and Timothy Spall, a dependable British actor whom I noticed for the first time in “Secrets & Lies”, gives one of the best performances in his career as a talented but miserable man who has been mired in emotional suffocation throughout his life. Even when it looks like he gets a chance of ventilation during his brief time with some young prostitute at a local brothel, Turner still does not know what to do with his deep grief, and we come to see more misery and sadness from his teary, disoriented face. He always feels unhappy in his life, and that is probably why he becomes closer to Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), who provides him an unburdened alternative life hidden from others including Hannah.
At least, he is brightened up a little whenever his interest is perked up. When his scientist friend Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) visits him, they enthusiastically share their fascination with the nature of sunlight, and then we get an amusing moment later in the film when Turner encounters an early form of camera, which he cannot help but be curious about as an optical expert of his own.
“Mr. Turner” is a beautiful film as humble as Spall’s deftly understated performance, which effortlessly holds everything in the film while never drawing attention to itself. Its dry, austere approach demands a certain degree of patience, and you will be disappointed if you expect something dramatic, but this arthouse film works as a thoughtful look into the creation of art. It is not ‘entertaining’, but it is a rewarding experience thanks to those beautifully haunting moments when everything simply looks perfect in its hero’s view. After all, isn’t it the purpose of art to capture such sublime moments we sometimes come upon in our seemingly banal, meaningless life?