Mr. Turner Dir. Mike Leigh

[Sony Pictures Classics; 2014]

Styles: period drama, comedy, biopic
Others: Naked, Topsy-Turvy, Quills, Pollock

If Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner is to be believed, British marine/landscape painter J.M.W. Turner was something like the Charles Bukowski of proto-impressionist art: a grumpy, carousing scoundrel who cut an uncouth swath through the English art world in the first half of the 19th century, equally beloved and disdained, the kind of person who you’d be excited to see at a party even as you felt the need to watch him out of the corner of your eye. He was tolerated because he was singularly talented: his marine paintings captured the swirling terror of the ocean in broad, lively strokes that beat impressionism to the punch by decades.

Leigh does an admirable job relating the story of this madman onscreen. As Turner, Timothy Spall is a grunting, lumbering beast, albeit one who is able to dial back his misanthropy a hair for patrons and his beloved father (Paul Jesson). His antipathy towards humanity is taken out primarily upon his loyal, put-upon maid Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), the most tragic figure of the whole lot. Hannah, for whatever reason, is in love with Turner, delighting in his rare affections (and even his occasional… um, misconduct). Her ever-worsening skin condition throughout the film is probably at least partially a result of the anxiety stemming from this unrequited love.

Turner, however, isn’t one to be held, no matter how much he might like to be. He rambles through life, oscillating between bouts of inspiration, social climbing, desperate seeking, and self-pity. He only seems truly happy on his increasingly frequent visits to the seaside town of Margate, where he eventually becomes smitten with a woman (Marion Bailey) who rents out rooms in her idyllic little house.

It threatens to sound like the stuff of a maudlin BBC miniseries targeted at senior citizens, does it not? While Leigh may be in that age bracket himself, though, he’s lost neither his bite nor his deep feeling for humanity. In his capable hands, Mr. Turner is less a biopic, and more a tribute to the artistic temperament, that ugly thing that one is forced to keep around if we want anyone to knock us out of our stupor long enough to actually feel the world around us. It’s a love letter to what Leigh sees as Turner’s ilk, those who move people to experience (as he puts it in his director’s statement) “the profound, the sublime, the spiritual, the epic beauty and the terrifying drama of what it means to be alive on our planet.”

While hardly action-packed, Mr. Turner is well-paced and well-acted. It is loaded with beautiful pastoral shots and excellent period detail, and its prettiness is balanced out with pepperings of Leigh’s distinctly acidic humor, a verbose thing which demands close attention to be fully appreciated (doubly so given that it’s a period piece, and much of its chosen vernacular is two centuries behind us). Leigh is like Turner, though: even as his public gets harsher and dumber, he retains the quintessential “artistic temperament:” harsh but feeling, spitting a defiant gob into the eye of the void even as he acknowledges that he, and indeed all of us, can only resist its gaping maw for so long.

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