Joseph Mallord William Turner was a complicated man, revered for his pioneering painting style, but his reputation tainted by his life away from the easel. In typically fluid fashion, veteran British filmmaker Mike Leigh writes and directs a biopic of the artist, which looks at the latter stages of Turner’s life. The great Timothy Spall stars in the eponymous role, and the narrative follows how he balanced his passion for his art with his personal demons. Both Leigh and his regular cinematographer Dick Pope are long-time fans of J.M.W. Turner and this comes across strongly on-screen as the director’s style departs from the zany and improvisational and is executed with great care and precision.
The plotting is slow and brooding, documenting the solemn, and at times reclusive existence of the man known as ‘the painter of light’. Using his art as his escapism from the troubles around him, Turner seems to be in his own little world and for a while, we are invited in. Pope’s cinematography is impeccable, particularly in several landscape shots that are cleverly set up to look like Turner’s paintings before pulling out to see Spall in the shot examining his environment to prepare for his next masterpiece. These moments of cinematic magic are like spots of light in the dreariness of the narrative which is often as miserable as Turner’s scowl. Spall is passionate, and almost animalistic in his portrayal, grunting his way through his lines and showing occasional signs of black humour.
‘Mr. Turner’ is a love-letter from Mike Leigh to the work of the artist that lasts an ambitious two and a half hour running time, but rightly and realistically refuses to make him into some sort of hero figure. Billy, as he was referred to by his peers, was not a nice man but an important one, and Spall’s performance gets this spot on. Actresses Hannah Danby and Marion Bailey put in stellar turns as the women of his life – his housekeeper and mistress respectively – but it is Timothy Spall who sturdily holds the piece together, and deservedly picked up the illustrious Best Actor award at Cannes as his reward, and subsequently putting himself in with a chance of more awards recognition next year.