Before seeing “Mr. Turner,” written and directed by Mike Leigh, it would be wise to get some background information on JMW Turner, the great British painter who transformed seascapes into ephemeral swirls of impressionistic light and color decades before impressionism became a movement. In the movie, Turner is played by Timothy Spall who creates a persona not unlike the hunchback of Notre Dame - a man whose default facial expression is a tight-lipped scowl, underscored by frequent grunts and inappropriate gropes. Though he wears a top hat and is clearly an acclaimed member of the Royal Academy, it’s hard for his peers and the audience to know what to make of his behavior. Does he suffer from Tourettes syndrome or some personality disorder? What accounts for his attractiveness to the kind and caring Mrs. Booth who doesn’t know that he is the famous painter until well into their relationship? Leigh does little to try to explain Turner’s peculiarities, wanting us to accept him at face value - an eccentric genius and a riddle for which there is no answer.
We discover halfway through the film that the artist who claims to have no children does indeed have a living daughter and one who has just died yet there is no filial sentiment aroused by either nor any compassion for the grieving woman who bore them. Lest we suspect that he is someone who can’t form emotional connections, we see his deep attachment to the elderly father whom he still calls “daddy” and whom he respects and adores. Later, we see the domestic tranquility of his secret life with Mrs. Booth but it’s an enigmatic contrast to his ongoing brutal relationship with his awkward housekeeper, almost his female counterpart.
Leigh’s movie is a singular and painterly evocation of an artist’s life and milieu with cinematography that is breathtaking from the opening scene of two figures walking on a beach to the more dramatic inspirations for Turner’s paintings. Moving at a very leisurely pace, the film mesmerizes us by the sheer volume of Turner’s artistic output and the energy behind it, despite his obvious physical deterioration as we near his final years. To an audience grounded in psychological interpretations for character and motivation, this biopic will be impossible to decipher. Leigh has added his own spin to Turner’s life such as the very off-putting sexual relationship with the housekeeper and the put-down of John Ruskin who is turned into a caricature of a gay man, down to his annoying lisp - an episode that goes on far too long for the thin material that provokes it. Will purists who are familiar with the artist’s life be offended by these fabrications? Perhaps, but for most of us, we will wonder how to reconcile the sensitive and brilliant artist with the boorish and selfish man who gave so little to the woman who served him faithfully and the children that he abandoned and denied. Of interest, Leigh chooses not to tell us that the housekeeper was left a good deal of money after Turner’s death - he doesn’t want us to be reassured that Turner was a good man after all. Mike Leigh enjoys complexity and has given us a portrait of a great artist and a man who remains a difficult conundrum.
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