Mike Leigh has turned his attention to JMW Turner in this entertaining and occasionally melancholic portrait of an artist in the later years of his career, and the autumn years of his life.
Timothy Spall has created this unique take on Turner not only physically but also through a series of grunts and moans where the dialogue would usually be found. The opening ten minutes of the film were a challenge to understand, and I did find myself leaning forward in my seat, straining to catch quite what it was Spall and the other other actors were saying. It seems that later scenes were easier to comprehend, or perhaps I simply became acclimatised, and I was soon comfortably reclined in my seat.
The film first introduces us to Turner painting in the Netherlands, before moving over to his home in England. This is where he resides with his father, William Turner Snr. (Paul Jesson), and his forlorn housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson).
Hannah is the closest we get to an audience surrogate, and Atkinson says very little in the role, but still conveys so much. Despite Hannah’s diminutive status and her need to stay very much in the background, Atkinson ensures we still learn a great deal about the character from the simplest shrug, or just a momentary glance.
Hannah is shown on the receiving end of the occasional grope from Turner, and sometimes they participate in a full-on sexual encounter up against the bookcase. Crucially though, neither shows any love or affection.
Turner does not freely reveal his feelings or affection to others, but it is still very clear that he has strong emotions. One moment in which he breaks down in tears whilst sketching a prostitute is particularly affecting. But those feelings are typically buried, deep within a highly unlikeable exterior. Turner is an ugly character, but like his paintings and their depictions of horror, there is also a beauty and grace, albeit one that might be hard to understand or appreciate.
Mr. Turner takes a loose approach to its narrative structure and often jumps from one location to another without any obvious signpost as to time or place. This loose structure and even the lack of on-screen captions or obvious establishing shots is arguably beneficial, allowing the film to dig deeper and deeper into character, exploring Turner in rich detail without the distraction of any other narrative.
But, perhaps as a side effect, the film does drag at times and the final thirty minutes are maybe even something of a chore as we navigate the obvious wrapping up of loose ends and move ever closer towards inevitable Turner’s death. Some humour does help lighten the tone and ease the trudging pace, particularly a hilarious turn from Joshua McGuire as the amateur critic and absolute buffoon, John Ruskin.
As the final scenes play, over a bed of original score by Gary Yershon, we get a glimpse of Turner’s wife, cleaning a window. She smiles, perhaps thinking back on their marriage, and it was hard not to smile with her, remembering the deeper emotional side of Turner and the beauty of his work. But Leigh hasn’t let him off the hook and so, in the very final scene, the film speaks to those that did not fare so well from their time in his company.
It’s a very important scene, a bold and complex finale to Leigh and Spall’s deft handling of their problematic subject.