Anybody looking for a cozy holiday costume drama about a famous painter should steer clear of Mike Leigh’s uncompromising, sometimes brutal film. J.M.W. Turner is best known these days as the man who painted all those landscapes hanging in London’s National Gallery where boats on and buildings along the Thames nearly disappear into a rainbow-hued swirl of sun-dazzled shimmer. These are pre-Impressionistic, even quiet works. But in Mr. Turner, the man who heaved and hurled those paintings into life appears as a great snuffling boar of a man with coarse manners; the farthest thing from a nineteenth-century aesthete one could find. The working-class son of a barber, Turner is singularly unimpressed by the higher society whose interest in his work made him so wealthy.
Leigh doesn’t bother with preambles. We first see Turner’s solid, barrel-like form (Timothy Spall, resplendently physical) on the bank of a Netherlands canal, sketching. Next, he’s tumbling through his well-appointed London home, needing to get his easels up and his painting going before the inspiration found in nature sputters out. Mostly unacknowledged by Turner are two helpers: Hannah Darby (Dorothy Atkinson) a servant woman with a hunchback and painful-looking skin lesions; and William Turner (Paul Jesson), technically the painter’s father but more like a loyal valet. Other people don’t matter much from Turner’s viewpoint. He is more a man of great storms and vistas, the tumultuous fury of nature, and the mysterious engines of the Industrial Revolution erupting around him.
Leigh, who also wrote this densely-researched film, also doesn’t bother with more than the barest outline of a story or identifying most of the characters who pop in and off screen. Turner lived from 1775 to 1851. The film appears to start sometime in the last third of his life, when his reputation and place in society is fully assured. We see Turner going about his days, striding purposefully into the countryside for more raw material or holding forth at the Academy with his fellow painters. There is almost no interstitial framework, just an acknowledged passing of years. Turner begins the film as an acknowledged master; he ends it somewhat out of favor, his increasingly abstract work mocked as “a dirty yellow mess.”
A framework this loose should have spelled disaster for as actor-centric and instinctive a filmmaker as Leigh. He wouldn’t seem a good fit for the biopic form, as 2004’s intriguing but torpid 1950s abortionist drama Vera Drake showed. His style was better showcased in rollicking comedies like Happy-Go-Lucky or coruscating relationship stories like Another Year, where small bands of determined performers could just shanghai the screen.
To some extent, that’s what happens in Mr. Turner as well, though it remains a film more rigid and visual than Leigh’s usual style would predict. Leigh’s usual cinematographer Dick Pope does magical work. His sumptuously textured Barry Lyndon-inspired interiors alternate with stunning wideframe exteriors inserted like illustrations in an artist’s catalog. Still, this remains an actor’s film. Spall is an unusual choice for a painter but an unforgettable presence. His fierce, face-wrenching squints and groggly frog-like baritone have long made him well-suited for animalistic types with a hint of sulfur about them. But it is Spall’s Dickensian broadness of appetite and delicacy of perception that Leigh wants.
The film plays many jokes on Turner’s beastliness, cutting from one scene where William is carving the hair off a sow’s head to prepare it for cooking to another where he’s scraping his son’s cheeks with possibly the same straight razor. Spall’s Turner grunts his way through much of the film; many scenes feature a character asking the painter a question only to get a nod and a phlegmy “uhh” in response. (Few recent films feature so much lovingly-captured audial misery, particularly in its more grueling later segments.) It can be almost a shock to hear him finally utter the opinion of a learned man in one of the borderline farcical salon scenes Leigh scatters throughout like candy.
Leigh ultimately takes advantage of Spall’s bent toward the grotesque to rub the audience’s face in his ugliness. Like many artists captured on screen, Turner is a user. He treats the submissive and worshipful Hannah as a sexual prop to be used and forgotten. No matter how often Turner’s estranged wife and their two grown daughters try and demand his attention, he barely acknowledges their existence to their face, and denies them completely to others.
There’s a borderline sadism here reminiscent of Leigh’s purgative Naked. But the film refuses to be simplistic about its artist. The scenes between Turner and Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), the widower he takes up with, are stunningly and oddly romantic. It’s as though we’ve been given a glimpse into a side of Turner normally only expressed through paint. Turner’s beastliness also doesn’t extend to his art, which he treats as both solemn undertaking and professional tradecraft. Turner was the kind of painter whom people like to call iconoclastic. Sometimes that can refer to someone simply too wrapped up in their vision to keep an eye on the real world. That wasn’t Turner; he kept a showroom in his home and had a keen appreciation for what a guinea was worth. In his case, it means that he had sharp elbows, sharper opinions, and an instinct for the marketplace. He was also an artist spotted here lashing himself to the mast of a ship in a snowstorm in order to paint the scene.
If Mr. Turner sometimes slips out of gear and refuses to make sense in the pursuit of its character, that’s only because its subject did the same in the pursuit of his art.