Mr. Turner (2014) — Image via mongrelmedia.com

Mr. Turner

Directed by Mike Leigh (2014)

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a historical figure portrayed quite the way Timothy Spall portrays painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. Neither a saint committed to his mission nor a hero overcoming adversity nor a tragically flawed genius, Spall’s Turner is a little bit of an eccentric, a little bit of a sensitive soul, and a little bit of a “regular guy,” at least in the context of his time and his position in society.

Mr. Turner (2014) — Image via mongrelmedia.comJust as Spall does not give a conventional take on his character, Leigh has not created a conventional biopic. Beginning when Turner is already about 50 and at the height of his acclaim within the art world, the film follows him through the last 25 years of his life. There is no plot per se, though certain strands of story emerge, including Turner’s reaction to the death of his father William (Paul Jesson), his relationship with twice-widowed boarding house keeper Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), and his turn toward increased abstraction in his painting. But mostly, as its title might suggest, Mr. Turner is a character study, albeit one that focuses more than usual on the external and material manifestations of its subject’s personality.

Mr. Turner (2014) — Image via mongrelmedia.comAnd a complex personality it is. It doesn’t take us too long to witness some questionable behavior on Turner’s part. He treats his psoriatic housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) like she barely exists, though occasionally imposing himself on her for purely utilitarian sex; he neglects to support his two daughters by his ex-mistress (and Hannah’s aunt) Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen); and he enlists his father to stretch his canvasses and grind his pigments despite the older man’s obviously poor health. In short, he has a lot of blind spots. Yet he also has a keen eye for beauty and a clear commitment to absorbing the nature of things and sharing the world the way he sees it with others through his paintings, which he wants to be displayed to the public for free after his death.

Mr. Turner (2014) — Image via mongrelmedia.comAll of this is conveyed in as unsensational a manner as possible, usually leaving us guessing as to the feelings and motivations behind Turner’s actions. The man himself communicates largely through mumbles, grunts and snorts, occasionally breaking out into a bit of flowery prose that he might or might not be delivering in an ironic spirit. Most of what he does, he does with an air of straightforward practicality, even when he is doing something as extraordinary as having himself tied to the mast of a ship so he can witness a storm in all its glory. And though his painting process is intensely physical — often involving spitting and jabbing with his brush — one never gets the sense that he is redirecting other feelings onto the canvas. He is simply trying to get the painting the way he wants it.

Leigh has always treated his actors as collaborators in creating not only their roles but also the stories they inhabit, and with the focus so squarely on the protagonist, Mr. Turner is Spall’s film in as many ways as it is Leigh’s. That is not to slight the memorable contributions of many of the other actors — Jesson and Bailey in particular, as well as Martin Savage as troubled painter Benjamin Haydon — but Spall is the center of attention here, and once you acquaint yourself with the odd rhythms of his speech and behavior, he’s a pleasure to watch. Mr. Turner is not exactly a happy film and certainly not a completely flattering portrayal of its subject, but viewers will find much to admire about its unique, down-to-earth take on the making of great art.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.