Director: Mike Leigh
Writer: Mike Leigh (screenplay)
Stars:Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Martin Savage
Running Time: 150 mins.
Starring the extraordinary Timothy Spall in the title role, Mr. Turner explores the last quarter century of the eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner, that’s Joseph Mallard William Turner who lived from 1775-1851.
Largely a painter of marine landscapes, usually stormy in nature and sunsets, Turner examines clouds, light, space and forms, finding new shapes in nature to inspire him. And so it is with the film itself, each scene framed lovingly whether by the arch of a doorway or by the light coming from a seaside window. It captures the feel of many of Turner’s paintings as it did in one gorgeous shot using a working replica of Robert Stephenson’s 1830 Planet locomotive from the Manchester Museum Of Science And Industry, with the sun setting behind the train, the same condition Turner had painted.
When we first meet “Billy” Turner he is living with his father William who acts more like a servant, buying, preparing and customizing his paints, and a mousey housekeeper whom he occasionally uses for sexual gratification . He has a family of his own that he ignores, a wife or, she may be a mistress, it’s never explained, and two daughters and a grandchild. He’s an endearing lout who grunts and snorts his approval, disapproval or general ponderings whether he’s conversing with friends, fellow painters or with the aristocracy who appreciate and buy his art.
He is ridiculed by some, adored by others and we get a good view of his heart when he releases an impoverished painter of his debt to him. Most interesting is the fact that Turner, at one point, was offered a fortune to sell his entire work and he refused, stating his intention to bequeath everything to the British nation so that it could be exhibited in one place and viewed by the public gratis.
Midway through Turner develops a close friendship with Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), his landlady at the seaside town of Margate where he famously had himself tied to the mast of a ship in order to get a good view of a snowstorm at sea. After her husband dies, they become more involved and ultimately marry; their relationship stays strong until his death.
Lotta says the problems I have with the film are its length, way too long and Mike Leigh’s not providing crucial facts to his audience like what horrible disease is the poor housekeeper suffering from. She’s inflicted with a skin ailment at the start of the film and it progresses to the point of her looking like a leper by the end. Are she and the Turners affected by the toxicity of the paint or what? We’ll never know and I found that troubling throughout. Some of the British accents were indecipherable and it’s not a subject matter that American audiences will generally wish to sit through. And yet, the performances by Dorothy Atkinson as housekeeper Hannah Danby and Marion Bailey as Sophia Booth are absolutely lovely. Spall is brilliant.