Film Review | Mr Turner

Where most biopics whitewash their subjects to the point of dull cliche, Mike Leigh's spirited and down-to-earth Mr Turner is proud to display the unpleasant paradoxes, as well as the genius, of the groundbreaking British landscape painter.

Turner round: Timothy Spall gives the performance of a lifetime as the pioneering British painter J.M.W Turner
Turner round: Timothy Spall gives the performance of a lifetime as the pioneering British painter J.M.W Turner

Films about the creative process are taking centre stage at this year’s Oscar race, and first out of the gate for us to consume is acclaimed British director Mike Leigh’s bittersweet biopic Mr Turner, in which Timothy Spall gives a growling but ultimately humane performance as the titular English landscape painter.

While we have yet to get Birdman and Whiplash – which concern the neuroses of contemporary actors and jazz musicians, respectively – Mr Turner raises the bar quite high.

The film depicts the final quarter of Joseph Mallord William Turner’s life, as he slowly but surely begins to chip away at the artistic establishment of Victorian Britain. Respected by his artistic peers at the Royal Academy of Arts, the unmarried painter endeavours to break new ground in landscape painting – breaking free from vulgar representation in favour of a more elemental approach which eventually lead to the Impressionist revolution, as well as plant the seeds for abstract art.

Meanwhile, however, he is just a jobbing painter and a flawed human being, left in the care of his determined trooper of a father, William (Paul Jesson) and his devoted but neglected housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), whom he exploits sexually with nary a sign of guilt. 

Far from being a buttoned-up BBC period piece, Leigh’s film works in deliberately messy chiaroscuro. It is unsentimental in its treatment of both its setting and its characters, as even the most outwardly ‘aristocratic’ of locales is shaded by hints of grime. There’s no space here for pretty frocks and polished Keira Knightley cheekbones, though the landscapes that inspire Turner’s best work are given that awe-inspiring due.

This is not to say that the film is dour. Like its perma-sneering and corpulent protagonist, it’s possessed of a wry and mischievous humour – puncturing the pretentions of the social elite with relish… each gag building up slowly but surely.

If it has any grand claims to make, the film is about the last dying gasp of the 19th century, with Turner’s experimental efforts viewed with suspicion by the cultural establishment, while Turner himself looks upon with disgust at the invention of photography, which he claims will “ruin” him. But more than anything, the film is a deeply intimate portrait of a stubborn pioneer who is lovable, but not necessarily loving – as his hard done by devoted housekeeper would attest to.

True to Mike Leigh’s artistic programme, consistent since he first appeared on the scene in the 1970s, to depict the dirty, ‘kitchen sink’ undercurrents of everyday life, Hannah Danby’s treatment betrays the injustice and hypocrisy of the Victorian age. She’s often seen hovering at the peripheries of the frame, studiously ignored by the supposedly enlightened souls that visit Turner’s abode.

Where most biopics insult our intelligence by shoehorning the life of a complex and great person into the corny fairy tale dynamic of a blockbuster melodrama, Leigh doesn’t shy away from showing us the ugly paradoxes that are also an integral part of a quietly revolutionary character like ‘Mr Turner’.

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