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The Globe and Mail

There’s genius in the mundane Mr. Turner

At the heart of the film Mr. Turner is an extraordinary performance by the British actor Timothy Spall.

4 out of 4 stars

Mr. Turner
Written by
Mike Leigh
Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey

'The man must be loved for his works; for his person is not striking nor his conversation brilliant," the artist Edward Dayes said of his contemporary, J.M.W. Turner. Even his biographer, A.J. Finberg, writing in the 1930s, complained: "Turner is a very uninteresting man to write about."

The gap between the celestial art of the great English romantic painter Joseph Mallord William Turner and the brutish details of his life is vividly explored in Mike Leigh's tragicomic movie Mr. Turner. Leigh, himself a somewhat curmudgeonly romantic, is best known for his caustic portraits of contemporary British life (Naked, Secrets and Lies). This is only the third time in a long career that he has made a period movie (his others were Vera Drake, about a 1950s abortionist, and his Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy).

Though Leigh's process – using workshops, research and extensive improvisation before forming a finished script – tends to focus on performance, Mr. Turner, his first film shot digitally by cinematographer Dick Pope, is one of his most visually powerful films, evoking Turner's yellow-tinged sea and landscape images without mimicking the paintings.

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The opening scene is in the Netherlands, suggestive of the 17th-century Dutch painting tradition on which Turner's work was built: Against an evening sky, we see a windmill on a hilltop to the right. Next, a couple of women in white Dutch hats move across the foreground of the scene. Then, on the hill, appears the silhouette of a portly man in a top hat, scrunched over a sketchbook, making jabbing pencil marks on the page. It's Turner, putting himself in the picture.

But performances are still the heart of Leigh's work, and at the heart of this film is an extraordinary performance by Leigh's frequent collaborator, the British actor Timothy Spall. When we are first introduced to Turner, back home in London, we find the artist – now around 50 and near the height of his career, but a distinct oddball – living the life of a near-recluse. His jaw gapes open, he waddles more than walks, and he grunts more often than speaks. And he still lives at home with his Daddy (Paul Jesson), who functions as his caretaker and personal assistant. When the two men meet, they growl and hug like a couple of bears awakening from hibernation. They can barely stop touching each other. After shaving a pig's head, roasting it and serving it for dinner, Dad uses the same razor to trim his son's whiskers.

The impression that Turner has piggish attributes is confirmed in his conduct with their housekeeper, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), a pathetic, devoted woman whose head hangs at an expectant-dog-like angle. When the urge strikes him, Turner pushes her up against a bookcase to vent his sexual urges. Though he may be a great Romantic, he's not a great romantic: The unmarried Turner has to contend with the occasional intrusions from an angry estranged mistress (Ruth Sheen), her two grown daughters and a grandchild, all of whom he regards as an annoyance.

Yet he's a man of fathomless emotions. After his beloved Daddy dies, he breaks down in a brothel, where a young prostitute posing for him watches in alarm at his constricted groans and blubbering noises. Later, Turner takes a room under a pseudonym in the seaside town of Margate where, unexpectedly, he finds love, or at least a companion to replace his father. The landlady is the jolly, plump, twice-widowed Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), who becomes his last mistress. She's a sensible, open-hearted woman who seems to have little in common with the rude genius.

As Leigh repeatedly shows, though, Turner's gifts and deficits are inextricably bound together. When he spends time with the other painters in the Royal Academy of Arts, his eccentricities are treated with fond tolerance and his talent with deep respect. Like any artist whose career lasts, he also has a streak of ruthless pragmatism. That's demonstrated in contrast to the painter Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), who is racked with bitterness about his poverty and professional setbacks.

Turner's own career isn't without downturns. As he ages, his spiralling, rhythmic images of clouds and skies have a mystical luminosity where ordinary objects have almost disappeared. The effect isn't popular. We see his work mocked in a music-hall revue, and sneered at by a young Queen Victoria who finds his yellows "vile" (as in, rhymes with bile). Yet he also has his champions, including the foppish young critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), a man who later proved a key figure in championing Turner's genius through the late Victorian era. Ruskin is presented here as a simpering ninny, but even critics can be right sometimes. And even artists who resemble inarticulate gargoyles may have access to a grand and liberating vision of light.

Mr. Turner opens on Christmas Day.

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