“I wanted to make a film about [J. M. W.] Turner, the personality,” director Mike Leigh said in a recent interview commissioned by the Tate Modern. And that is what he did with Mr. Turner, writing and directing the second film in Competition at Cannes 2014, one that kicks off what will likely be a tight race for the festival’s Best Actor prize.
Joining Leigh for the sixth time is Timothy Spall as the beloved British artist, and as seen in 1996’s Secrets & Lies, the Spall/Leigh combination is a great one. Spall’s nuanced performance as the grunting, guttural Mr. Turner carries the film throughout its hefty, noticeable 149-minute running time. “He is so complex, and there’s so much of him to get your head around,” Leigh said of the painter, and his film is certainly a testament to that; the same is abundantly true for Spall’s ability to really tap into the character.
Looking at the final decades of Turner’s life, the film compresses a quarter-century of narrative to create a portrait of the artist as complex as he truly was. A survey of the events: Turner paints, he travels, he loves, and he counsels with members of the Royal Academy of Arts (played to perfection by a cast of Leigh regulars, including Lesley Manville as Scottish polymath Mary Somerville). By his side is the pitiable Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), Turner’s housekeeper who is utterly ignored by the man despite loving him unrequitedly. Jumping late into his life, we see what makes the artist tick, what inspires him, and what eventually kills him. There’s also an interesting intersection between art and technology here, as the science of light and optics is introduced to the artist in the twilight of his years (a thoughtful scene depicting Turner’s first self-daguerreotype is just one example).
The film’s art department, and Leigh’s trusted cinematographer Dick Pope, are to be commended. The mise-en-scène and dramatic blocking of Mr. Turner are inarguably exquisite; the latter of which being typical of Leigh, whose background in theatre is confidently called to play here. In populated scenes, we always see the faces of each actor in frame; their angles and positions relative to each other are classic to the stage but work brilliantly here, too. Long takes and deliberate dollies allow us to pore over what is definitively inspired set design, with many of the tableaux directly adapted from Turner’s catalog. It may take a trip to the Tate and a second viewing of the film to catch all of these visual references—some of them more obvious than others—but this homage is a subtle yet excellent use of the medium, and deepens the film thematically.
Though much of the film is immaculate, the sum total lacks an emotional weight to lift the biography off the canvas. A whining score and Turner’s grouchy disposition add to the difficulty to feel “moved” by his life’s events, of which there are a lot of. The artist is aging and that is a sad reality, but there’s nothing truly affecting about this inevitability; moreover, certain threads are harped on more than once, generally overstaying their welcome.
Turner’s relationship—or lack thereof—with his housekeeper is an exception, and I found myself more interested in this character than Turner himself. His sexually abusive behavior towards her leaves Hannah miserable and confused, and it’s one of the only emotionally compelling aspects to the entirety of this biography. Her character is a reminder that Mr. Turner is primarily a well-acted, well-shot dramatization of non-events, though that truth doesn’t necessarily detract from what remains an accomplished tribute to the painter of light’s mastery—or, for that matter, Spall’s proficient portrayal.