If there really was a movie god looking down benignly on a rational movie universe, Timothy Spall would get an Oscar for his performance as British painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s latest marvel Mr. Turner. That he probably won’t says less about how great he is than how myopic and dull the various awards bodies really are. Spall mumbles and grunts and growls his way through this portrait of the artist as a contradictory man and ultimately (along with Leigh) transcends ordinary biographical material to present a richly textured impression of a man and his compulsion to create. It’s as much about art and creativity as it is about Turner himself.
Turner’s ultimate deathbed realization is that “The sun is God.” As a master of light, Turner knows this intimately. Light gives life, and Turner’s command of it allows him to recreate life on a canvas with paint. Science can take light and split it into its separate components, or capture a moment of light on a frame of film, but only an artist can use that light to express a feeling. That’s what Turner does again and again and again. On the surface, he’s rude, grumpy and kind of gross, but locked away in his chamber, he draws on a deep reserve of sensitivity and then harnesses his pigments, roughly scraping or wiping his canvas and sometimes spitting on it to achieve the desired effect and to show the world uniquely as he sees and feels it.
A master of a different kind, Leigh slowly and subtly builds his own impressions. Eschewing a driving, focused narrative, he favors a textural approach built up from layer upon layer of detail until, as a frame of film slowly coming into focus, his picture is revealed only in the end. You know and feel what you’re looking at, but you don’t know exactly how Leigh got you to this point. In this case Leigh paints with character details. He revels in the seeming contradictions that Turner presents. How is this sort of disgusting man capable of such enormous depth of feeling whether his images are beautiful or (as they are more often) dramatic and a bit disturbing.
The beauty of Mr. Turner is that Leigh never tries to iron out those contradictions. He only attempts to reconcile them. This is illustrated beautifully by the two main women in Turner’s life. His housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) is tragically dedicated to him, but he mainly uses her even as she deteriorates throughout the film. She serves his needs in a housekeeping sense, but also frequently in a sexual one. Later in the film he enters into a relationship with his landlady Sophia (Marion Bailey). As he spends more and more of his time with Sophia in a normalized relationship, poor Hannah is increasingly marginalized and abandoned. To the end Turner demonstrates both great love and also great callousness. It’s part of Leigh’s genius to see that Turner’s lasting art comes from the combination of the two aspects of his personality