In Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh adds new shades of meaning to the phrase "warts-and-all biography."
His portrait of the famous English painter during the final decades of his life (Turner died in 1851) is spectacularly robust—the streets, the wharfs, the salon galleries, the artist's studio have all be vividly recreated, like a Dickens film without a plot. It's no wonder the film garnered Oscar nominations for both costume and production design.
And the acting is first-rate. Timothy Spall, in the title role, mumbles and grunts his way across the screen like a cretinous lout (good enough for Best Actor kudos at Cannes), and various relatives, servants, and artist-friends also fix themselves in our imagination immediately. Marion Bailey is worth singling out for her portrayal of a jolly boarding-house matron, twice-widowed, who possesses an unaffected intelligence and sensitivity that Turner finds appealing. If she likes Turner, then maybe he's OK.
Director Mike Leigh presumes that the audience already knows a good deal about Turner's personal life—or else he feels that such details are unimportant. For example, it seemed evident to me that the shrewish woman who shows up from time to time with Turner's daughter in tow is his estranged wife.
Yet unlike most "period" English dramas, Mr. Turner is utterly devoid of romantic sentiment. For Turner the art is all-important, and the rest of his life (which is what the film is mostly about) is of only secondary concern. By the time the film gets underway Turner is already famous and wealthy, so there will be no undiscovered-genius plot-line for us to feed on. He adores his father (who now mixes paints for him) and harbors deep wounds as a result of his mother's incarceration due to insanity and his sister's death at an early age. On the other hand, he brutally manhandles his maid and insults people wherever it suits him.
Artists are traditionally granted such eccentricities. But here we run up against the film's most serious weakness. Turner is obviously dedicated to his art, but I, for one, had trouble believing that the individual whose career we were following was actually moved by the seascapes he was painting. He doesn't seem like the type. And the paintings themselves are seldom presented with any degree of detail or conviction. They lack emotional ballast.
All the same, this two-and-a-half hour film moves ahead with all due speed. There is a lot of thought behind it. Because there is no plot, nothing is predictable. Mike Leigh has always made odd films that stick in the mind, though we usually have a quarrel with them. I'm thinking of Secrets and Lies, Topsy Turvy, Another Year, Happy Go Lucky, and the strange and abominable Life Is Sweet.
Mr. Turner is one of his better ones.