D/W: Mike Leigh. DP: Dick Pope. Starring: Timothy Spall/Paul Jesson/Dorothy Atkinson/Marion Bailey/Ruth Sheen/Lesley Manville/Sandy Foster/Martin Savage.
Amidst other biopics of the year emerges Mr. Turner. The film chronicles the latter half of British painter J.M.W.’ Turner’s life as he lives eccentrically and paints in the nineteenth century. Balancing between his travels for his inspiration and his complicated home life, Mr. Turner offers a biopic with little answers.
Delving into his familiar world of nineteenth century England, writer and director Mike Leigh is clearly in his element here. Along with veteran collaborator, cinematographer Dick Pope, the pair are able to lift Turner’s paintings into beautiful shots. Contrasting the grim and gruffly parts of Turner’s life are the beauty of what inspired him and these visuals help to complement an already brilliant performance by Timothy Spall.
Spall, an already vivid Leigh collaborator from 1999’s Topsy Turvy, is full throttle crotchety here. Half the time his responses are merely delivered in grunts and sounds that can only be termed as male, middle aged, and displeased. Yet Spall never allows it to be false, though there are some laborious sequences here that could have been edited down. One specific scene involving crying is as painful as anything actually said. The aging of Spall is handled with finesse and the physicality of Turner’s painting technique blended into the performance.
Mr. Turner only offers points of inspiration for Turner’s work. And when it comes to the personal plot points no explanation or motive is ever directly referenced. Not only does this feel fresh amidst other more obvious minded biopics, but gives depth to the script and Spall’s performance as anchor that would not have been possible. Spall is supported well by the entire cast with the women in the film illustrating a variety and voice common in Leigh’s other films. Lesley Manville nearly steals the show as a Scottish tinker who shows Turner how to play with different colored light. Gary Yershon’s score is spectacularly haunting and at times dissonant giving Mr. Turner an eerie quality, echoing its beautiful title sequence, among other things. It is a worthy addition to the Leigh canon.