Master portrait

Evocative performance, period setting make for wonderful biopic on 19th-century painter

Mr. Turner
Opens Friday, March 20. Starring Timothy Spall, Ruth Sheen, Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey. Directed by Mike Leigh. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 5.0

Now that I’ve finally had a chance to see it, Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner looks like one of the best three or four films of 2014. It’s a gritty and evocative biopic, a lavishly detailed slice of the life of the great 19th century English painter, J. M. W. Turner.

Character actor Timothy Spall has the title role, and he delivers an extraordinary performance, a fierce and shambling display that makes full expressive use of the actor’s burly physique, the peculiar eloquence of his growls and groans, and the subtle poetry in his array of Dickensian facial expressions.

That central performance is made even richer by what surrounds it. An eccentric cast of secondary characters is part of that, but perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment of all is in its quasi-tactile immersion of the entire tale in the pungent physical detail and ambience of daily life in London, circa 1830.

In some ways, Mr. Turner is more about that richly imagined ambience than it is about the life of Turner. But surely part of the point here is that the life and work of this artist have a more meaningful impact, for us, when viewed in the context and existential immediacy of their times. This somewhat atmospheric approach to biography is especially well-suited to cinema, and it also seems in keeping with Leigh’s long-standing preference for a realism of dramatic emotion that is both ambiguous and very specific, with simple, clear-cut conclusions held mostly at bay.

Which is not to say that the film is lacking in noteworthy biographical incident. Turner’s irreparably damaged relationship with his wife (Ruth Sheen) and two daughters is a recurring element. His very occasional romance with the wizened, pathetic, stoically attentive housemaid Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) is viewed with a kind of grim affection, but with nothing even remotely resembling the grace notes of a conventional love scene.

There is some romance, however modest, in Turner’s relationship with the widow Sophia Booth (a gracious Marion Bailey). At first, she’s simply his landlady in the seaside town of Margate, where he has rented rooms (under an assumed name) as a studio/retreat from London. Later, she’ll move closer to London to be with him more often. Their lovemaking is clumsy, but the two of them share an affection and mutual respect that seems to have been rare in Turner’s life.

The material circumstances that loom over human relationships in Leigh’s films also loom over artistic endeavor in Mr. Turner. The film is very good at evoking the ways that particular scenes and settings play into (or sometimes, against) Turner’s art. One of the better scenes in the film deals with how particular shades of paint are acquired. An even better one is a kind of tour de force in which Turner makes one very dramatic change in a painting just after it has been hung on the crowded wall of a gallery/salon.