Mr. Turner

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/21/15 20:17:18

"A fitting portrait of an artist known for seascapes."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

This is Mike Leigh's third historical biography, which is somewhat surprising considering what a loosely outlined style he is famous for using - improvisation and recreation do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. And yet, somehow, this winds up an excellent way to get to know Joseph Mallard William "Billy" Turner, more so than any particular narrative might.

Turner (Timothy Spall) was an painter, mostly of landscapes and seascapes, whose career roughly spans the first half of the nineteenth century. At the time the film begins, sometime in the 1820s, he is a solitary man, refusing to acknowledge his illegitimate children and grandchildren, mostly keeping the company of his father William (Paul Jesson) - a former barber who now serves as his son's assistant - and their maid Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson). On a trip to the seashore, he stays in a boarding-house run by a couple by the name of Booth (Karl Johnson & Marion Bailey), to which he will return frequently.

There are events to the movie, whether important turning points, recreations of events that have been set down for posterity, or everyday moments that demonstrate the nature of the times Turner lived in. Leigh credits and thanks many researchers in the end credits, so it is likely that few scenes are invented from whole cloth. They do not resolve into a traditional story arc, with explanations given for behavior or early actions paying off with later results, and for a while the various sequences are so disassociated that it's a bit of a surprise to see Turner return the Booths', or have other people become recurring presences in his life. The lessons to be drawn from this presentation of his life are perhaps small ones.

But we watch Turner nonetheless, trying to suss out some meaning from Timothy Spall's portrayal of the man. Spall gives the impression of an almost misplaced genius, that Billy Turner is working-class down to his very bones and is thus uncertain how to deal with the rarefied circles he finds himself in. He grunts and refuses to speak much of the time; when he does it's as though he has difficulty elaborating on a concept with words, squeezing out simple phrases with great difficulty. There's a guardedness to him and an ability to communicate with his peers that makes it seem more born out of class than him being a savant, especially since he is educated. And while that earthiness doesn't disappear when he paints - he spits on his canvases and uses the materials he has available - it's amazing how Spall can make Turner's arms feel loose even while his back seems tense. That sort of contradictory physicality often shows up in his performance, and it more than makes up for the relatively little talking he does over the course of the film.

Leigh surrounds Spall with a fine cast, none of whom are fancied up to look out of place. Paul Jesson brings a wincing cheer to Turner Senior; he's stooped and in obvious pain, but gregarious, and if he doesn't understand Billy, his devotion is clear. The same is clear for Dorothy Atkinson's Hannah - painfully deferential, but still especially hurt whenever he fails to acknowledge his family, giving the audience room to speculate but never seeming a cipher. Marion Bailey makes Sophia Booth half star-struck and half widow-next-door, providing a solid grounding at the point when the movie would start to drag.

Along the way, the movie is gorgeous, with Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope often starting a segment with a shot that looks like a vibrant painting itself, and fills the scenes in between with painstaking historical detail. It is sort of amusing, in a way, to think about how carefully some of these settings were created, either on a stage or a graphics workstation or by redressing an old city street (or some combination of the three), populated with extras in period costume, and shot, with the end result being that Turner walks through grunting. It's not overtly ostentatious, but it is enveloping, and Leigh makes sure that there is enough wit on display and ideas raised that the audience may feel the length but does not likely grow aggravated by it.

In some ways, that makes it easy to see why Leigh perhaps sees a kindred spirit in Turner - both have created works using means that seem deceptively casual but which prize authenticity while often including impressive detail. This affinity - which seldom leads to Leigh aggrandizing his subject - certainly helps to make a film that can often seem deliberately unfocused quite interesting even to those who are not necessarily drawn to stories about artists.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.