★ ★ ★
Filmmakers can capture the essence of painting more easily than they can most other art forms. There are, after all, natural similarities between looking at a picture and looking at a picture that moves. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, a biopic of landscape painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, manages to get inside the head and heart of an artist, details what made him such a distinctive figure in art history, and gives film lovers a chance to stare at some of the most beautiful cinematography of 2014.
Timothy Spall stars as Turner, a gnomish man whose speech patterns usually (though by no means exclusively) consist of grunts and growls. He’s already an established painter by the time the film opens, and the movie focuses on the final years of his life. During this period, he falls in love with Sophia (Marion Bailey), a widow who runs a boarding house he frequents during his inspirational trips to witness dramatic seascapes. He also lives through the death of his beloved father, negotiates his fractious relationships with his daughters and their mother, and carefully controls who buys his work.
The plot, as is often the case with Mike Leigh’s work, matters less than the characters. Famously, the dialogue in Leigh’s movies is formed over the course of months of improvisation with his actors. That approach certainly suits this material, as the director and his collaborators aren’t so much interested in a narrative as they are in showing us an artist whose gruff exterior hides a grandly passionate and complicated inner-life that spills out onto his elaborate and powerful canvases.
There is little drama to be found in the movie; you will not be on the edge of your seat, wondering what’s going to happen next. However, from the very first image of a sun-dappled field, you will marvel at the glorious visuals provided by Leigh and his longtime cinematographer Dick Pope. That’s not to imply that they tried to make the movie look like Turner’s work, just that Leigh felt he had to live up to the artist’s legacy, and he created a stunningly gorgeous, painterly film as a result.
Timothy Spall gives a theatrical performance that employs broad physicality and vocal tics to indicate the feelings Turner often leaves unsaid. However, in those moments when Turner allows himself to speak passionately and articulately, you can understand how specific Spall’s acting choices have been. It’s a very good leading performance from someone who looks and sounds nothing like your typical leading man.
Make no mistake, this is an arthouse film through and through, and the lack of a plot makes it feel even longer than its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Some movies, however, aren’t about telling a story, but the sensory experience of watching them. Mr. Turner teaches you how to appreciate what you’re looking at.