Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner (2014)


(director/writer: Mike Leigh; cinematographer: Dick Pope; editor: Jon Gregory; music: Gary Yershon; cast: Timothy Spall (J. M. W. Turner), Dorothy Atkinson (Hannah Danby), Marion Bailey (Sophia Booth), Paul Jesson (William Turner), Dorothy Atkinson (Hannah Danby), Lesley Manville (Mary Somerville), Martin Savage (Benjamin Robert Haydon), Joshua McGuire (John Ruskin), Ruth Sheen (Sarah Danby), David Horovitch (Dr. Price), Marion Bailey (Mrs. Booth), Karl Johnson (Mr. Booth), David Horovitch (Dr. Price), James Fleet (Constable), Leo Bill (John E Mayall – photographer); Runtime: 150; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Georgina Lowe; Sony Picture Classics; 2014-UK)

“Imaginative and richly detailed 19th century period biopic on the last 25 years of the revered English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The legendary Brit filmmaker Mike Leigh(“Life is Sweet”/”All or Nothing”/”Topsy-Turvy”) directs and writes with a peculiar sense of brilliance and honesty this imaginative and richly detailed 19th century period biopic on the last 25 years of the revered English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851). The middle-aged Turner is depicted as a complicated, cantankerous, eccentric, and controversial figure. He acts like a cad with his out-of-sorts estranged wife Sarah (Ruth Sheen) and his two grown daughters, ignoring them at all costs despite their needs. Turner also has some troublesome relationships with fellow artists. He has a wary one with his main rival Constable (James Fleet), and a fiery one with the demanding Haydon (Martin Savage), who are all members at the elite Royal Academy of Arts.

The wealthy and famous Turner is either reviled or adored by the public for his formless style and obsession with light in his paintings. Also, the master painter is coldly dismissive to his long-time lovelorn housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) whom he is not above sexually exploiting.

The masterful oil and watercolor landscape artist is deeply affected by the loss of his ex-barber father (Paul Jesson), who joyfully served as his assistant and confidante while they lived together in their comfortable London family home.

The artist further develops his craft when he journeys to Margate, where in anonymity he’s inspired by the sea to paint boats in distress, sunsets and seascapes. Turner forms a warm relationship with the twice-widowed seaside landlady Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) and in his later years will live with her in Chelsea. Turner will die in Chelsea nursed by his Mrs. Booth, with his last words uttered being “The sun is gone.”

Turner’s friends are only of the aristocrats from the Royal Academy. His sex life is snatched from his frequent brothel visits. Turner is pictured as often in a top hat silhouetted against the landscape, as he paints in the country. He’s a man of few words who often scowls. In Margate, he gets strapped to the ship’s mast so he can experience it in a snowstorm. This became his most famous painting, and the one the public knows best.

The film is stunningly beautiful, as cinematographer Dick Pope shows us the world as Turner might have seen it. The performance by Timothy Spall is majestic. The non-judgmental personal portrait of the artist effectively lets us judge for ourselves Turner as the passionate creative artist and Turner as the artist who refuses to be compromised. He’s the public spirited man who refuses to just sell his work for a large sum but rather bequeaths it to the government so the public can see the art for free. Turner is the flawed man, a great artist with serious women and social skill issues.

The pic has heart and soul, and ranks as one of the better insightful artist biopics.