The artist as hero—it’s a persistent myth, and of course filmmakers have long been in the habit of putting heroes at the center of their stories. English director Mike Leigh, himself one of the foremost artists of cinema, knows very well that an artist is a human being, subject to the same flaws and even vices as the rest of us. And as a celebration of this fact he has made a film about the great British painter J.M.W. Turner, a highly influential artist as well as an eccentric and deeply flawed man.
Timothy Spall, the portly, big-jowled actor probably best known in the States for playing Wormtail in the Harry Potter series, gives us the performance of his life as Mr. Turner. Not a man of words, Turner is shown stubbornly pushing his way along, all his thoughts devoted to his art, and the rest of his time ruled by inchoate emotional and physical needs. On the side of art, we see Turner’s famous paintings of ships at sea and other marine settings become more and more abstract as he gets older, until the figures in his seascapes and other works become swirling swaths of color. In some ways a precursor of the impressionists, Turner went largely misunderstood in his later years, and in one scene we see the young Queen Victoria peering at one of his paintings and pronouncing it “wretched.”
On the down-to-earth side, we witness Turner’s rather callous relationship with his devoted housekeeper Hannah, played by Dorothy Atkinson, a simple-minded woman whom he uses sexually as well, either not recognizing or not acknowledging that she loves him. As we discover, he has two grown-up daughters by an ex-lover, all three of whom visit in order to scold him for lack of support. Also living with Turner in London is his father William, played by Paul Jesson, a gruff, amiable old man who acts as the artist’s helper and agent, mixing paints and meeting clients. Later, when Turner travels to a seaside village to paint the harbor there, he lodges under a false name and ends up in a relationship with the landlady, played by Marion Bailey, thus living a double life—one as a famous painter in London, the other as a nobody in Kent. In the end, there is unplumbed mystery to Turner, which we only glimpse slightly in a scene where he starts to sob while visiting a prostitute to make a sketch of her.
Leigh is a true artist in that he does not shape his material with the motive to entertain, but rather with the sole purpose of conveying a vision. Mr. Turner de-romanticizes the life of the artist, portraying the hard work and difficult choices of a craftsman. Turner is a thorny kind of man, and his relationship with the Royal Academy is shown, in a series of marvelous satirical scenes, to be fraught with contradiction, but he knows how to achieve success within the art world of the time without losing integrity, unlike the temperamental painter Benjamin Haydon, played by Martin Savage, shown here in contrast with Turner, overly sensitive and defiant, and always in debt.
The period detail in this film, depicting early 19th century England, is absolutely stunning. In some of the scenes with Turner painting in nature, Dick Pope’s beautiful cinematography reproduces some of the quality of Turner’s painting. Most of all, this rich and uncompromising film rests on the shoulders of the actor Timothy Spall, who achieves an unforgettable portrait of a man who was like no other. Mr. Turner is a triumph.