“Color is my daylong obsession, joy, and torment.”
― Claude Monet
With Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, a perfect union of film biographer and subject has landed at Cannes. In his film about J.M.W. Turner, an English Romantic painter of landscapes who caught the subtle shimmer of light on water in ways the world had never seen, the director known for capturing the subtle grace of human behavior has delivered a masterpiece of his own. After decades of signaling that he had this kind of film in him, the usually humble and introspective Leigh has at last created the kind of portrayal that works both as biopic and self-portrait. Digging into the genesis of genius, the solitude of inspiration, the madness of the muse, Leigh reveals reasons that help explain why being a great artist and a great human aren’t always compatible.
Timothy Spall plays Turner, a grumbling discombobulated artist whose only abiding interest is in looking at light and finding innovative ways to paint with it. He is compelled to sketch anything he sees that ignites his fancy, no matter where the impetus comes from or how little sense it makes to anyone else. He does what many of the masters have done for centuries but particularly his Romantic peers and pioneers in the earliest years of the Impressionist movement — chase the elusive vagaries of light and let it take us to unpredictable places. The effect with Turner’s work were landscapes imbued with grave emotion, haunting imagery and sublime beauty, much like this film — every frame of which seems touched by a painter’s hand.