There’s more to what makes up the soul of a painter then the brush strokes on the canvas. Mr. Turner is a unique biopic from writer and director Mike Leigh about the last quarter of the life of J.M.W. Turner (played by Timothy Spall), an eccentric, cantankerous, and genius painter who in the 19th century created some of the most unique landscapes on canvas ever created. While riding through some standard biopic trappings, Leigh successfully takes us into this world through the eyes of the artist himself, never skimping on looking at the sometimes grim, but often beautiful imagery that made the man who he was.
Before Kanye, the world had Turner, a man who believed that to effectively paint a snowstorm at sea he had to be strapped to the mast of a ship during the middle of it. A lout and a reprobate who ignored his familial duties, exploited women, visited brothels, and happened to be revered and reviled in the same breath by the artistic community, he was the poster child of eccentricity in art before it was stylish to be an iconoclast in polite high art circles.
Turner successfully stands apart from other efforts in the Mike Leigh canon thanks to some stunning art direction and cinematography that appropriately looks like a painting, gives us a true artist’s perspective to go along with what’s sure to be a career defining performance from one of our age’s best character actors.
The dialogue and tone of a Leigh film has a distinct nature and flow that can sometimes be grating if the filmmaker can’t relate to his subjects, but here it works. The methodical nature of following Turner around in a variety of settings, sometimes without a care in the world, trying to be as large as life and sometimes with a very deliberate agenda, adds a great deal of purpose to the man’s story and underlines his mystique without lionizing it. It brims not only with a certain rich palette of colours, but feelings. We feel like the movie is a painting of Turner’s, and the viewers just small characters living inside of it with a pair of masters – Leigh and Spall – commanding every brush stroke. It’s immersive in wonderful ways, and Leigh commands perfect control of his surroundings. The movie is the intersection of the art and a biopic.
Spall, who is probably best known to North American audiences as Wormtail in the Harry Potter series, delivers such a wholly compelling, rock solid performance that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. With a gruff, confused, but sensitive demeanor, Spall reveals only as much of Turner’s mindset as he needs to. He crafts a character that is off putting – as he snorts and growls for his main forms of communication – but he’s talented enough to warrant being a bit full of himself. He’s an anchor for material that could have been like watching paint dry, even in Leigh’s hands. It isn’t a story that gives us a lot of depth with its supporting characters, but no matter where Turner goes and no matter what he does, every sequence feels vital thanks to Spall’s nuanced and constantly in-the-moment work.
Ultimately, Mr. Turner just might be the best and most balanced representation of the work of Leigh. There’s some funny bits and some severe moments, but it perfectly outlines the mindset of an eccentric genius, forcing viewers to appreciate the beautiful moments beyond just a canvas or a movie screen. It’s a movie about an artist demanding appreciation that needs to be appreciated on its own terms.
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