‘Mr. Turner’: Brilliant biopic

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Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” is a stunning biopic of one of England’s most important artists. J.M.W. Turner was a Romanticist, who captured landscapes and maritime scenes in oil, water colors, and sketches.

Starting around 1830, “Mr. Turner” focuses on the final decades of the artist’s life. The film glosses over the fact that Turner had been a child prodigy. At the tender age of fifteen, one of his water colors was accepted as part of Royal Academy’s annual exhibition.

The opening twilight scene of “Mr. Turner,” set in the Netherlands, is beautifully constructed. As a windmill turns on a hilltop, a pair of milkmaids in distinctive Dutch headwear are walking along the roadway, engaged in animated conversation. In the background, we see a man surveying the scene from behind his easel. It is Turner (Timothy Spall), who is painting away. This is a homage to the 17th-century school of Dutch painting, which informed Turner’s work. It is an early portent of the film’s careful attention to historical detail and visual splendor.

The film segues to Turner’s home. It is evident that he is no starving artist. He lives in a well-appointed townhouse. It is only later that we learn that Turner hailed from a humble, working class background. Turner’s beloved father (Paul Jesson) had been a barber and perruquier, who later became a dutiful studio assistant to his son. When Turner was still a young boy, Turner’s mother had been committed to a mental asylum.

We soon learn that despite the refinement of his artwork, Turner is an altogether crude fellow. As adroitly portrayed by Spall, he communicates largely with guttural grunts, groans, and throat clearings. Yet, he is surprisingly articulate when he chooses to be. At one juncture, he interrupts the erudite, albeit self-indulgent, discourse by the art critic, John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire). Turner politely asks, “Might I pose a most conundrous question?,” before challenging Ruskin’s analysis.

Turner’s housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) is homely, has severe psoriasis, and a hunched posture. At one juncture, even though Turner is faced away from Hannah, he reaches out to momentarily grab her breasts. Turner then reverts to studiously ignoring her. Although Hannah was abused by Turner, she remained his devoted housekeeper for four decades.

Turner is also shown to be a lousy father. Years before, he had parented two children with Hannah’s aunt, the widowed Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen). Every time that the resentful widow and her two grown daughters , Evelina (Sandy Foster) and Georgiana (Amy Dawson), visit, it leads to a contentious row over Turner’s failure to provide financial support to them. In real life, Turner disclaimed parentage of Sarah’s two children, even though he later left them a bequest in his will.

One of the film’s best vignettes involves last minute preparations for the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1832. Artists are putting the final touches on their hanging  works. Turner’s rival, John Constable (James Fleet) is working on “The Opening of the Waterloo Bridge.”  Over seven feet long, it had been painted by Constable over the course of thirteen years. From its monarchist perspective, the painting glorifies the historical event. Turner’s more restrained “Helvoetsluys – the City of Utrecht, 64, Going to Sea” hangs next to it. Suddenly, Turner slaps a seemingly random gob of red paint on his painting, then walks away. Turner’s fellow artists are incredulous. One gasps, “He’s ruined a masterpiece!” However, Turner returns, dexterously dabbing the red pigmentation to transmute it into a bouy. Constable pronounces, “He has been here and fired a gun.”

In Turner’s later years, his style became progressively more abstract, anticipating 20th century Impressionism. As the film depicts, Turner’s stylistic deviations from traditional objective paradigms subjected him to harsh criticism. At one juncture, Queen Victoria (Sinead Mathews) accompanied by her royal consort, Prince Albert (Tom Wlashiha), have a private viewing at the Royal Academy. She pronounces Turner’s artwork as, “vile.” The essayist, William Hazlitt, wrote a scathingly of Turner’s style. The film shows a dance hall production, which makes a public mockery of Turner. He angrily stomps out in response.

Despite the controversy surrounding him, Turner continued to attract wealthy patrons. We see him hobnobbing at the country estate of George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont (Patrick Godfrey) at Petworth in West Sussex.

Writer/director, Mike Leigh, is best known for his realistic, modern-day kitchen sink dramas. His 1996 “Secrets & Lies” was nominated for an Oscar and won a BAFTA and the Palme d’Or at Cannes. His 2004 “Vera Drake,” which was set in the 1950’s, won a Golden Lion. However, Leigh’s filmography also includes “Topsy  Turvy,” a 19th century period piece about Gilbert and Sullivan. For “Mr. Turner,” Leigh provides a carefully researched screenplay and deft direction.  His affection for Turner seems apparent throughout the film.

In the lead role, Timothy Spall has a daunting task. He must capture the reality of how repulsive and socially tactless Turner was in many regards. Spall must simultaneously turn the self-described gargoyle into a character, who will elicit audience sympathies. Spall somehow succeeds, investing the eccentric Turner with some endearing qualities.  Spall’s achievement has been recognized with numerous accolades and he is a deserving of Academy Award consideration.

The supporting cast is also excellent. Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s  indulgent housekeeper; Joshua McGuire as Turner’s lisping, effete champion, John Ruskin; Ruth Sheen as Turner’s estranged, erstwhile paramour; Marion Bailey as Sophia Booth, a prosperous landlady with whom Turner finds emotional sustenance late in life; Lesley Manville as Mary Somerville, a gender role defying female scientist; and Martin Savage as Benjamin Robert Haydon, a penurious artist; provide an excellent ensemble.

Cinematographer, Dick Pope, a frequent Leigh collaborator, provides excellent, painterly visuals. Pope’s focus on lighting is crucial to a film about Turner. The latter is considered to be a master of its use in his paintings.

Production designer, Suzie Davies, and costume designer, Jacqueline Durran, transport the viewer back to a bygone era. Although the film is two and a half hours long, the editing by Jon Gregory make the film fly by. Composer, Gary Yershon, provides a stirring score. It is well complemented by Spall’s cacophonous, but heartfelt, vocal rendition of Henry Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament.” Another nice classical touch is the use of Ludwig van Beethovens’s “Sonata Pathétique.”

Turner was a remarkably prolific artist. He produced more than 550 oil paintings, 2,000 water colors, and 30,000 sketches. Turner had enormous influence in elevating the artistic depiction of landscapes and maritime subjects to rival paintings with Biblical and historical themes.

“Mr. Turner” is a sumptuously mounted and brilliantly acted film. It is a fitting tribute to a great artist.

“Mr. Turner”  ****  R (for some sexual content ) 150 minutes

Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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