Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Timothy Spall
Watch Mr. Turner online in the UK: iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Wuaki.tv
It’s not easy to communicate in grunts. Are you angry? Aroused? Suffering indigestion? Timothy Spall’s all of them and more in Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s biopic of the artist. He totters around the streets of Victorian London, waving his umbrella and harrumphing at the people he meets. It’s as un-period drama as period drama gets.
That, of course, is why Mike Leigh is such a good fit for this beautiful biopic. Turner, who cares not a jot for his fellow artists, worrying about where they’ve been displayed in the National Gallery, is as blasé about his life as anyone: it’s only fitting that Leigh take the same approach. Dialogue feels true to the time, but also distinctly indecorous, emphasising that Turner is not a member of high society. He not a rich man. He’s not a saint. He’s not even a nice person – Leigh doesn’t shy away from giving us screen time with his cruelly shunned former partner and daughters, even as we see him fall for (and grunt at) a new love: Mrs Danvers, an innkeeper in Margate.
Leigh himself swoons over the landscapes, with Dick Pope’s cinematography taking a painterly approach to each frame; strong lighting, bright yellows and a stunning detail gives everything a Turner-ish hue. One jaw-dropping shot captures The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her last Berth, just as the sunset nears the horizon, but even more impressive is a quiet moment halfway through, when we cut from Turner’s own canvas to the hillsides of Kent with no difference between the two.
Leigh’s aptly irreverent tone means that we don’t go the full hog, only focusing on the artist’s final years. Even with this decision, though, the pacing is slow – at 2 hours and 30 minutes, this is absorbing stuff, but long. Fortunately, Leigh’s grubby humour (and lampooning of the upper class, including a hilariously lisping John Ruskin) makes Turner someone whose company remains a pleasure. It’s a blunt, unceremonious portrayal of a rude, brusque artist – and, more often than not, a delight to watch. You might groan at the runtime, but you’ll end up grunting in approval.