Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner played this weekend at the 52nd New York Film Festival. Sony Classics will release the film theatrically beginning December 19 in New York City.
“When I peruse myself in the glass, I see a gargoyle,” the great English artist J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) tells Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), his kindhearted landlady. Mrs. Booth, from whom Turner rents a room when he visits the seaside town of Margate, deflects his self-criticism, saying she believes him to be a good and sensitive man. In fact, according to writer-director Mike Leigh’s engrossing biopic, they’re both right. A man of artistic genius and enormous feeling, Turner was capable of behaving with great sensitivity. He could also be an unfeeling lout.
Turner, looking much like a giant mole in a high hat, communicates with Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), his adoring housekeeper, mainly in grunts, growls and wordless, porcine ruttings that seem to leave him feeling guilty and sad. He’s even less available to his illegitimate daughters and grandchildren, never supporting them financially or acknowledging them publicly. But he’s warmly affectionate with his unconditionally loving father, the third member of his household; jovial and outgoing with the other painters who are smiled upon by the Royal Academy of Arts, which was a staunch supporter of Turner’s for most of his life; and graciously attentive to many of the other people he encounters over the course of the film.
Each of those encounters, almost all of which are fascinating in their own right, tells us something about Turner and the times he lives in. A self-taught natural scientist named Mary Somerville who visits to discuss her experiments involving prisms reminds us how young modern science was 200 years ago. We also learn that Somerville is interested in Turner’s perspective because of his “visionary” understanding of color.
Cinematographer Dick Pope rarely lingers on Turner’s luminescent, emotionally turbulent paintings, but we see enough of them to understand what Somerville meant. Often panning over a painting or a grouping of canvases, Pope makes Turner’s art as much a part of the film’s environment as its authentic-feeling mid-nineteenth-century dialects, costumes and settings. And, though the paintings are not usually the focus of the action or even of the characters’ attention, every so often somebody says something that helps us understand the artist’s intentions. Describing the painting of a tiny Hannibal crossing the Alps in a gathering storm, Turner’s father says: “The elements dwarfing the elephants. Hubris!”
Interesting details of daily life are presented in a similarly matter-of-fact way, like when Turner’s father shaves the hairs off a pig’s head before Hannah cooks it, or Turner strides through one of the Academy’s annual exhibits past roomfuls of paintings whose frames butt up against one another, the art filling every inch of the walls. The crippling diseases people live with, presumably because there was no known cure, are rarely remarked on but impossible to ignore, from Turner’s father’s ultimately fatal respiratory ailment to the angry, itchy rash that covers nearly every inch of Hannah’s skin by the end of the movie. They’re all part of the filmmakers’ commitment to recreating the looks, sounds and social mores of Turner’s era as faithfully as possible without ever succumbing to the common costume-drama sin of mistaking historical distance for emotional distance, either making stilted waxworks of their characters or killing all credibility by stuffing the film with anachronistic language and behavior. Mr. Turner avoids those traps, creating sturdy, emotionally rich and historically credible characters like the saucer-eyed, devotedly subservient Hannah, who seems to be both everywhere and nowhere in the household she manages. Solidly grounded in that soil is Leigh’s Turner, who is no more than a fallible, sometimes selfish, sometimes generous man—and not one iota less.