Mr. Turner movie review: in the concrete abstract
This is no stuffy costume drama but a richly lived-in visit to early-19th-century England that is rough, bawdy, often funny, and more often unsettling.
I’m “biast” (pro):
I always expect greatness from Mike Leigh
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I don’t know much about the painter J.M.W. Turner except that he was a precursor to the Impressionists, that his work, which we can see today was an early transitional sort of abstract, inspired future generations of artists to represent the world in ways that had never been imagined before.
Even this foundational basic is not the sort of thing that Mr. Turner cares to share with us. As grand as it is — the film frequently borrows the epic look and feel of Turner’s sweeping landscapes — history and scholarship are not its concerns. This is an intimate film that says little and speaks volumes… much like, we come to see, the man himself. In one sublime scene, destined to become a little slice of classic cinema (as the whole film is), Billy, as he calls himself, listens patiently as a fan — a snooty manchild of privilege and learning but of little intelligence or insight — waxes what he thinks is poetic about Turner’s canvases. The painter endures this pretentious claptrap without even seeming to be annoyed by it; it’s as if what he is hearing has no impact on him whatsoever, and is merely a thing to be politely sat out until he can get back to work.
The work, we begin to gather, is everything to Turner, who otherwise expresses himself almost entirely though grunting. There’s a subtle, earthy groundedness to Mr. Turner: this is no stuffy costume drama but a richly lived-in visit to early-19th-century England that is rough, bawdy, often funny, and more often unsettling. Turner may have been a great artist — we see that even during his lifetime, his groundbreaking work has at least as many vehement supporters as scornful detractors — but he was kind of a terrible person. If he was a man of few words and deep emotions, those emotions are frequently unpleasant, or at least complicated and contradictory. He is cruelly indifferent to his housekeeper, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson: Topsy-Turvy), who is clearly quietly in love with him, even as he uses her sexually; yet he is tender with the woman who eventually becomes his mistress, the widower Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey: Vera Drake), though his attentions to her are at best terse. His most doting and physically affectionate relationship seems to be with his father, William (Paul Jesson), who works as his studio assistant, stretching canvases and mixing paints; Turner still calls him “Daddy,” and I think he’s the only person we see Turner kiss onscreen.
There barely seems to be any sort of “performance” to how Timothy Spall (The Love Punch, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2) inhabits Turner. Neither he nor writer-director Mike Leigh (Happy-Go-Lucky, Vera Drake) attempt to apologize for or even explain the artist: they just show us his life and let his hardscrabble intelligence and unspoken passion shine out of his sour-pickle face. The film’s marvelous understatement and unwillingness to drag the viewer in the direction of any particular emotion sometimes results, though it sounds unlikely, in small moments becoming wonderfully, sometimes hilariously legendary. In one delightful scene, one of the most memorable in a memorable film, he meets with the “natural philosopher” Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville: Maleficent, An Adventure in Space and Time) and observes her demonstration of a prism; we learn here how to recognize eagerness and intellectual engagement on Turner’s part: his eyes light up, and that’s about it. Later, a brief scene in which Turner and his fellow painter John Constable (James Fleet: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, The Phantom of the Opera) grudgingly acknowledge each other at a presentation of new canvases at the Royal Academy of Art utilizes only two words of dialogue — one from each man — and body language to scream out worlds of rivalry.
Somerville praises Turner and his work by telling him, “The universe is chaotic and you make us see it.” The subdued chaos of Mr. Turner, in which nastiness and beauty, thorniness and simplicity sit side by side, seems a perfect tribute to the man.
See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Mr. Turner for its representation of girls and women.