Mr. Turner

It’s hard to imagine the curmudgeon-maverick director Mike Leigh even deigning to utter the word “biopic,” let alone making one. If there’s anything we can safely expect from Leigh, it’s that he won’t go boiling down famous historical figures into series of wearily obligatory story beats. Certainly not the prolific 19th-century English painter J.M.W. Turner, whose work became a sublime segue from Romantic landscapes to Modernist abstractions, and whose personal life, as robustly inhabited in Leigh’s film by Timothy Spall, apparently contained multitudes of gropes and grunts. Maybe not since Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade has a movie actor conveyed a greater range of human feeling through animal sounds. Or course our Mr. Turner talks, too, sometimes most eloquently, and of course he paints. What’s most important to Leigh, though, is that the filmed Turner goes about his living, with a spirit which is both coarse and fine. Here, the only person with whom he shares any real intimacy is his seaside landlady, excellently portrayed by Marion Bailey, and the seaside itself is shown to mean a lot to him too. So Mr. Turner is a strange movie about a strange person. A singular work of portraiture, it captures the mystery of a man apart from and yet deeply at home within his inspirations. An affinity for environment, and for light, suggests that Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope have appreciated Turner’s work to the point of absorption. But it’s Spall who summons the life and commands the screen.