Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner Is Subtly Terrific

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Photo: Simon Mein/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

With his incomparable Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh continues to make other directors look simpleminded. His frequent collaborator Timothy Spall embodies the great early-19th-century seascape painter J.M.W. Turner, a stout little Cockney in a top hat who strides purposefully along the majestic seacoast and from one end of Leigh’s wide screen to the other, pausing to scrutinize the light the way a dog sniffs the air. Spall’s Turner is a notably unmajestic figure: It’s as if a Hogarthian caricature had been plopped down amid heavenly spires. But Leigh doesn’t present this seeming disjunction between the artist and his art as ironic, the way Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus bludgeoned you with the contrast between Mozart’s coarse manner and supernal music. (Shaffer had to distort Mozart’s character to fit the dubious thesis that God gives genius to people who don’t deserve it.) In the canvas that is Mr. Turner, the grotesque and the sublime aren’t on opposite ends of the spectrum. They blend.

The movie’s unifying motif is light, which consumes Turner’s thoughts and guides his movements. At the start of Mr. Turner, the camera discovers him sketching the sunset on a hill in the Netherlands. Not long after, he’s off to the seaside town of Margate for another angle on the sun and different atmospheric variables. In between, he’s at home, where his elderly father (Paul Jesson) totters off to buy paint that comes from as far away as Afghanistan, and his bashful, rather simple housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), helps pour his colors and visibly longs for his touch. The artist biopic is the most laughably overexplanatory of subgenres, but Leigh would rather glide over details than be caught spoon-feeding. He’s arrogant about such things. (It’s why we love him.) We just have to infer the twisted nature of Turner and Hannah’s relationship, as we need to fill in the blanks surrounding the weird constellation of Danbys who occasionally descend on the house, among them Turner’s scolding ex-lover, Sarah Danby (the ever-tart Ruth Sheen), and the couple’s daughters, whom the illustrious painter will never publicly acknowledge. The first scenes of Mr. Turner prepare us for a portrait of the artist as a stunted human. But what we finally see is more complicated — irreducible.

Spall’s performance is extreme and contains multitudes. His mouth, with its thick, protruding lower lip, is a brutish aperture, and he’s apt to grunt, growl, or snort in lieu of speaking. Turner was from a working-class background, but despite the bestial manners Spall’s Turner isn’t a primitive. When he does use words it’s with elaborate formality, and just when you’ve pegged him for a hermit he’ll charge into the main exhibition hall of the Royal Academy and slap the backs of fellow painters. He’s not so much deliberately cruel to the women in his life as selfish, childlike, and emotionally catatonic — a true Mike Leigh protagonist. Sketching a forlorn prostitute, he suddenly weeps, apparently over the hopelessness of her life. But then he goes home, brusquely thrusts himself into his housekeeper from behind, and hurries away. His brief courtship of a meek, chirpy Margate widow (Marion Bailey) suggests a longing to be fussed over rather than for intellectual companionship. He gets it and is satisfied. It’s not the realm in which he truly lives.

Broadly aligned with the Romantic movement, Turner doesn’t muse on, say, the presence of the divine in nature, but he’ll talk your head off about the refraction of color in a drop of water and the frangibility of light. In one scene, the famed Scottish polymath Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) arrives to demonstrate the magnetic properties of violet. Turner is utterly absorbed by her prisms, as if there could be nothing more important under heaven. And perhaps there isn’t. Somerville avers that “all things on Earth are connected,” and that’s there in Turner’s work, too, the presence of humans suffusing the landscape and vice versa. Finishing a picture as it hangs in the academy, Turner spits on the canvas and adds a puff of yellow paint dust to soften the colors and make them radiate beyond the boundaries of objects. When he’s done, the paintings seem unfinished, magically indefinite.

Mr. Turner doesn’t resolve into something definite, either. There are no Freudian one-to-one correspondences between life and art, no thematic signposts. As usual, Leigh’s actors did their own research on their characters and their work is broad, unruly, and fun to watch — especially Martin Savage as the angry, neglected painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, whose financial neediness is always at odds with his pride. It’s too bad that Joshua McGuire has been directed to make Turner’s critical champion John Ruskin a lisping twit, Leigh’s contempt for critics being a little plain for my taste. In life, Turner joked that Ruskin saw things in his paintings he’d never put there, but he was grateful for the influential young man’s advocacy, especially when the public came to view Turner’s later, more mystical works as the product of insanity. But it’s not in Leigh’s nature to be solicitous of critics. He’s still part punk. (It’s why we love him.)

Perhaps the most awesome thing in Mr. Turner is how Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope hint at Turner’s paintings in their landscapes — not to make the film look painterly but to suggest what Turner saw before transmuting reality into art. Near the end, a pioneering photographer sets up shop nearby, and Turner broods on the possibility that painters will be supplanted once people have access to more literal reproductions — before deciding that the reality he sees will never be captured by a camera. He’s right. But in all sorts of other ways, cinema does pretty well by him.

*This article appears in the December 15, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.