Spall's Turner creates a strong physical presence.
Artists pour out their souls on canvas and other media, yet it's always difficult to capture that process in reverse. How does one create a film about a painter when the subject's work should already speak for itself? Dramatic events like slicing off an ear or running away to Tahiti make it easier to create narrative arcs in a biopic. But what of the painter J.M.W. Turner, whose life appears to have been more of an arc than a bridge? The images of the acclaimed landscape oil painter and watercolorist -- certainly one of Great Britain's most magnificent artists ever -- were controversial in his time (1775-1851) but are now generally recognized as precursors of Impressionism and even Abstract Expressionism.
Writer/director Mike Leigh and actor Timothy Spall work together to show us the artist in his times. Mr. Turner exudes period detail, due in great measure to the contributions of cinematographer Dick Pope and production designer Suzie Davies (both Oscar-nominated, although Spall and Leigh were shamefully overlooked). Spall's performance is in a league of its own as the actor inhabits the body of this artist. Cutting a tousled, inelegant figure, Spall's Turner creates a strong physical presence, and his vast vocabulary of grunts comprises his own distinctive language. Less definitive, however, are some of Turner's depicted contradictions: his disavowal of his two daughters yet his late-in-life domesticity with the widow Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), his courting of rich patrons and his peculiar generosity to the impoverished artist Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage). Leigh doesn't try to resolve his subject's inconsistencies, but rather reveal them to be things that make up a human being.
This film finds Leigh returning to more or less the same time period as his wonderful 1999 film Topsy-Turvy, a film about the artists Gilbert and Sullivan composing The Mikado. Like Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Turner is not a full-on biopic; it focuses only on the last 30-odd years of the painter's life. There are details without explanations: Turner's abiding love for his father (Paul Jesson), the convenient sexual exploitation of the household servant Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), and the peculiarities mentioned above. There is little in the way of narrative eventfulness in the film, but Leigh luxuriates in the moments, providing glimpses of what it takes to be an artist amid the fray.