A wonderful variety of grumps, groans and growls accompanies Timothy Spall’s central performance in Mr Turner, in his role as the eponymous artist. It is a superb turn that subtly embraces the warts and all complexity of a character who is by turns cantankerous, grouchy yet kind, unrefined but sociable, stubborn yet quietly wise, without vanity but confident, loving yet neglectful, and equally at home with rich, poor or anyone in between. In spite of his flaws, you can’t help liking him and that is largely thanks to Spall.
The rest of the cast are good too, particularly Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s housekeeper, and Marion Bailey as his mistress. Eschewing anything approaching a conventional biopic, director Mike Leigh avoids both the ambitious plod through an entire life from childhood to grave, and also the focus-on-one-specific-incident approach as in, say, Lincoln. Instead, what Leigh focusses are Turner’s autumn years, specifically his relationships with the various women in his life, including the first mistress and daughters he generally ignores, his second mistress and his housekeeper. His touching relationship with his father (Paul Jesson) is also a key part of the film. In terms of what is important to Leigh, the final shot is very telling, and there are no onscreen pre-end credit remarks eulogising Turner’s achievements and subsequent place in the artistic pantheon. Less a story then, and more a series of observational vignettes that also includes, briefly, his famous rivalry with Constable (in an amusingly terse scene) as well as his up and down relationships with other artists, politicians and dignitaries (Queen Victoria and Prince Albert famously despised his work).
Leigh’s loose, observational style comes into play here, just as it does in all his other work. I must be honest and say I am not a big Mike Leigh fan, with the notable exception of the deliciously dark Life is Sweet. Of his back catalogue even his more popular films (such as Secrets and Lies) generally leave me cold, although I will grudgingly acknowledge their cinematic merits. As a result Mr Turner is not for everyone, and I suspect some will find it boring and/or inconsequential (not to mention long). I didn’t find it boring, but that was mainly due to the fascination I already had for the subject.
A film of limited appeal then, but one strikes an appropriately melancholy tone and looks gorgeous (courtesy of cinematographer Dick Pope). It also contain some absolutely splendid grunts in what is possibly Timothy Spall’s finest performance (grunt-tastic, if you will). In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is rewarded with an Oscar next year.