Five months after making a splashy debut at the Cannes Film Festival, director Mike Leigh’s magnum opus, Mr. Turner, finally hits theatres this weekend. Leigh’s film follows the exceptional, yet eccentric master painter J.M.W. Turner in the final chapter of his life. Timothy Spall plays the titular Turner brilliantly. Spall, a longtime character actor, does not waste his opportunity as the film’s leading man. He completely disappears into the character. Not an easy feat for someone whose likeness is recognisable worldwide as a veteran of the Harry Potter franchise.
While there is little doubt that Leigh’s Mr Turner is an exceptional film, don’t expect an upbeat success story that so many films about creative endeavour tend to employ. Mr. Turner is a morose, heart-breaking character study that brings the audience into the severely isolated life of one of history’s most revered artists. Having known little about Turner’s personal life and limited exposure to his work, I was taken aback by Turner’s frigid and distant personality. Spall expertly and often humourously distances himself from the people in his life with a series of grunts and mumbled jargon that make him difficult to connect with.
When we first meet Turner, he’s returning from a trip to the countryside to find the subject of his next masterwork. Upon his return we are quickly exposed to his home life. His father, William Turner (Paul Jesson) and his housemaid and sometimes lover, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), take on the task of maintaining his household. But beyond them, Turner maintains few relationships. He elects not to acknowledge the existence of his former wife, his daughters, or even his newborn granddaughter. He appears to be quite popular amongst his colleagues in the painter’s guild, but the more we come to observe of these relationships, the more we realise just how superficial these encounters truly are.
For someone who has come to live in such isolation, Turner relies a lot upon those in which he lets into his life. After he loses his father, he comes to enjoy the company of his future wife, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), and she then becomes the primary caregiver in his life, especially as Turner grows ill. But for Turner, it is not the deterioration of his health that is so troubling, but the decline of his painting ability and thus his reputation. Turner is heart broken, as he becomes a mockery amongst his guild mates as well as the public. It is this personal struggle, rather than sheer physical issues, that truly leads to Turner’s slow death.
Mike Leigh, who gets the most out of his modest collection of British talent, and will likely garner an Oscar nomination in the Best Original Screenplay category, expertly directs the film. In a lesser year, Leigh might pick up a Best Director nod, but with the crowded field in this year’s race it’s not likely. The film is beautifully shot by Dick Pope, a longtime Leigh collaborator, and captures the rich, colourful world of Turner’s art with apparent ease.
But the true star of the show is Spall, who took the Best Actor trophy at the Cannes Film Festival, and will likely find success once awards season comes around early next year. Spall inhabits almost every scene of the film and successfully elevates the rest of the cast along with him. The tiny mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that Spall so subtly works into the film are what truly make Mr. Turner the brilliant film that it is. But Spall’s most significant achievement is in making us empathetic towards Turner, despite how alienating he can be.
Mr. Turner hits theatres on Friday October 31