Let’s take a good long look at this figure.
Here’s a cross figure coming through. He’s pear-shaped, crass, and has a voice like an old car engine. He’s a guy with a perpetual sneer and an even more peppery demeanor. He’s not shy, nor really awkward, just crusty. A jowly old English dog. You’d assume he’s some pub regular, rambling about the good old days or something vaguely and politically incorrect. Look again. The exterior is dead-on. The name’s Joseph Mallord Williams Turner, and he was a gruff presence. But would you believe he was a masterly romantic landscape painter?
He is the subject of Mike Leigh’s painterly and lengthy biopic, Mr. Turner. It’s a sweet sort of irony: a generally ugly man whose greatest skill in life was to make handsome paintings. It’s fascinating, often dour, but rewarding as a study. Also, it possesses some of the finest photography of recent memory.
Mr. Turner presents the last 25 years of Turner’s life, and he’s portrayed by veteran actor Timothy Spall pledging himself to this persona. It’s a hearty role, built on the full embodiment of a man always teasing our understanding of him. There are no simple vantage points but rather curious and forthright observations. Leigh makes for a patient onlooker; he wants to show us, not tell us, what Turner may have been like. Mr. Turner is compiled of sketches and fascinating moments from the man’s life. The hard thing with Turner is that one often wonders if he’s being profound and sincere or caddish and cloying. It could be all or none. Admittedly, it’s the stuff of classically repressed British manners, but the moments fascinate.
Late in the film, Turner is critiqued at length by a foppish little critic; this guy elongates any word with three syllables or more, and it’s comically dreadful. Looking at Turner’s work, the critic declares, “There is no place for cynicism in the reviewing of art.” Mike Leigh seems to have taken that to heart in his observance.
When Turner’s father passes, he visits a prostitute. Turner poses her, then weeps violently, lamenting the loss of his father. There’s no intimacy to be found at the brothel, because soon after he goes home to raunchily hump his maid. But this isn’t about a deviant, instead just an off-putting man in his time. Mr. Turner is about the long gaze.
In one of the film’s sillier moments, Turner slaps a giant red circle on a beachfront painting and walks away. The artist goes nuts; how could he do this? After the brouhaha, Turner comes back, scratches off the bottom of the circle, and voila, a buoy. (The hard cut to a painting of a jackass is a nice touch.) This is immediately followed by Turner spitting on paintings. He’s just trying to get the right texture and feel for the work, of course. All of this makes for complicated, long-term portraiture.
Not to gush, but the cinematography is divine. This acknowledgement comes carefully after considering a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable with five noted cinematographers. Roger Deakins, the famous Coen Brothers D.P. and an 11-time Oscar nominee, spoke to how they feel when their work is mentioned in reviews. Deakins asserted that people confuse “pretty with good cinematography” and then shares an anecdote from Freddie Francis about how cinematography that fits the film is the most important thing. Dick Pope’s work on Mr. Turner isn’t just pretty; it’s museum-ready masterpiece gorgeous. It’s not simply Jack Donaghy’s drunken revelry of ships and handsome vistas. Pope’s photography is correct for the film.
This is a film about a painter and eccentric aesthete, one from the 18th and 19th century, who focused on romantic landscapes. Pope turns in one impressively constructed shot after another. (Funny thing, Pope was on that panel with Deakins, and he acknowledged the blessed weather on set.) The expression used in the film is “God’s gift of sunlight.” There are gorgeous countryside sunsets with silhouettes surrounded by every rich color available. Pope captures unreal mountainsides that fool viewers into thinking they’re painted. It all serves to reinforce one man, one singularly strange creature’s knack for portraying beauty.
Even the opening credits possess precisely designed qualities in painting, as luscious swirls of paint in water reveal one of Turner’s works against a black background. It all feels perfectly at odds with the character on display.