More often than not, I find big-screen biopics thoroughly tiresome. It's a genre stuffed with overwritten, oversimplified, overpraised portraits of memorable people; whittling away the unique elements of complex lives until those lives fit within a familiar mold. Mike Leigh transcended the stifling limitations of the drama with his sublime Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy, and he's done so once again with the magnificent Mr. Turner. This movie contains so many riches, chief among them one of the most compelling character studies I've seen in recent years.
Mr. Turner feels closer in spirit to one of Leigh's slice-of-life dramas than it does to most other films about great artists. It reveals its central character through moments of quiet observation, and eschews contrived dramatic scenarios in favor of small moments of inner conflict. The movie spans twenty-five years in the life of esteemed painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall, The Damned United), but flows with such gracefulness that you find yourself surprised to realize that a decade has passed over the course of an hour.
Spall's Turner is an endlessly fascinating figure; a brutish yet brilliant man who often communicates with a series of grunts, growls and snorts (there are moments when he seems more wild hog than human). He lives with his father William (Paul Jesson, Vera Drake), whom he loves dearly. He is pestered by his ex-lover Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen, Another Year), whom he finds intolerable. He is cared for by his housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson, All or Nothing), whose affection for Mr. Turner greatly outweighs his affection for her. Turner devotes himself to his father and his art with unwavering faithfulness, but doesn't wish to be burdened by the distraction of romance (sex is another matter entirely – a hobby he pursues with unflattering aggressiveness).
Early on, Turner's occasionally animalistic nature distracts us from the fact that he is, in fact, a complex man who contains many depths. He certainly has a keen and observant eye. He visits the ocean and squints intently at the horizon, his lower lip jutting out and his mind feverishly tracing every detail. His fame and his infamy rise simultaneously, as he is celebrated for bringing new levels of artful elegance to the realm of landscape painting and mocked for his more progressive techniques (in one memorable sequence, Turner attends a theatrical production which mercilessly satirizes his paintings and the wealthy buffoons who purchase them). These career developments – like so many other things in the film – are inferred rather than spelled out, as Leigh trusts his viewers to fill in the blanks. The film's brilliance has as much to do with what it leaves out as with what it puts in. I've often said that many biopics feel like audiovisual presentations of Wikipedia articles. There isn't a single scene in Mr. Turner which feels that way.
Appropriately enough, this is one of Leigh's most visually striking films. Working in collaboration with cinematographer Dick Pope, Leigh draws inspiration from Turner's paintings and somehow finds a way to effectively capture their essence. The beautiful imagery is more than mere prettiness. It's a deliberate attempt to help the audience see the world the way Turner sees it: those incomparable sunrises and sunsets. The fleeting wonder of light is a running theme throughout the film, and Turner often pauses to absorb those moments in which the sun kisses an outdoor location from just the right angle. In one early scene, scientist Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville, Secrets & Lies) introduces Turner and his father to a prism, causing a rainbow to appear on Turner's canvas. Other films might have treated this as a tired “Eureka!” moment, but not this one: Turner simply stares intently, as he always does, and the we're left to imagine what revelations he might have experienced and what impact those revelations might have had on his work.
It's worth noting that Mr. Turner is an exceptionally entertaining film despite its relaxed pace and unconventional structure. Leigh famously does months of preparation with his actors, and you can certainly see the way the approach pays off: every single person on-screen seems completely in the moment, and Leigh manages to stuff each shot with detail without ever losing the movie's sense of unhurried intimacy. I laughed out loud watching a character in the background of one scene attempt to work up the nerve to speak to Turner, and delighted in the way Leigh and his actors capture fifty shades of boredom during one of Turner's mumbly, stilted lectures. There's a good deal of hilarity in the way Leigh deflates the image of esteemed artists, presenting the great painters of the day as a group of squabbling school children playing cheap games of one-upmanship. Spall frequently finds the grotesque humor in Turner's personality, but never turns him into a caricature or a cretin.
Mr. Turner is consistently great, but it isn't consistently fair. Important figures from Turner's life are shoved into the background at times (his two children come and go so quickly that we hardly remember they exist), and esteemed art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire, Cinderella) is depicted as a lisping, air-headed cartoon. Much as we see the film's natural imagery the way Turner sees it, we see the film's characters the way Turner sees them: he doesn't particularly care about his offspring, and he thinks Ruskin is a joke.
However, there is a striking exception to this perspective. The film's most tragic figure is poor Hannah, who devotes her entire life to Turner and receives precious little in return. In one early scene, she stands next to him and asks whether there's anything he needs. “Tea,” he growls. She remains standing, making her implication clear. Turner reaches over, crudely gropes her breast and crotch and then returns to his work. Later, there's a sex scene that finds Turner taking Hannah with all the elegance of a dog in heat. Her affection for Turner is so strong that she looks on these moments fondly, but he only grows more distant from her as time passes. Leigh never looks away from the emotional devastation Turner leaves in his wake, using Hannah as a vivid representation of all the people (mostly women) Turner has cruelly neglected. The film's view of Turner is largely sympathetic and affectionate, but its final shot is so devastating that it almost makes you despise him. There is a boldness in the complexity of this characterization – few films seem willing to recognize that human beings are capable of being both angels and demons simultaneously. He is wounded, and he wounds. He is benevolent, and he is heartless. He is distinguished, and he is depraved.
Visiting IMDb, I was surprised to note the film's relatively low user rating (a 6.9 as of the writing of this review – in contrast, vastly more traditional biopics like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything respectively land at 8.1 and 7.8). I spent a little time browsing the forum conversations, and found that many people were frustrated with the film's lack of historical context. Thanks to the handholding predictability of many biopics, viewers have been trained to accept such movies as living history books rather than as distinctive, personal works of art with a specific point of view. Leigh isn't a 10th grade teacher, he's an artist, and he's made a film that deepens our understanding of art history rather than merely expanding our knowledge of significant names, dates and statistics. Like Turner himself, Leigh raises the bar for other artists working in his field. It's a pity that so few seem interested in clearing it.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 150 minutes
Release Year: 2014