Biopics about great artists are seldom great works of art themselves. How do you show Bach tinkering idly at the keyboard, or Van Gogh chewing the end of his paintbrush at an easel, without trivializing the mysterious process by which inspiration is transmuted into creation? How do you create a portrait of an artist whose work you deeply admire—but whose character in life was at times far short of admirable—without slipping into either idealization or demonization? And how do you find a lead actor with the complexity to communicate the inner life of an actual, bona fide genius, a person with a singular way of seeing the world, the technical facility to make that vision manifest, and the continuous drive to invent new modes of expression?
Mike Leigh has solved all these problems in Mr. Turner, his glorious new film about the last years of the English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. And I’m not even quite sure how he’s done it—his brushstrokes are as subtle and difficult to distinguish as the ones that make up his subject's shimmering seascapes and ominous, billowing clouds. Writing about Mr. Turner a few weeks after seeing it, I feel a craving to be again immersed in its world, which is rich with colors, textures, and, it sometimes almost seems, smells—not always pleasant ones, given that this is the early 19th century we’re talking about. More than any period film in years (Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood comes to mind, as does Leigh’s own Topsy Turvy) Mr. Turner seems to be taking place in something like the actual past, in a world distinctly different from our own while remaining contiguous with it. As the inscrutable Turner, a work-obsessed loner who for long stretches communicates only in grunts, Timothy Spall—a key member of Leigh’s informal ensemble company for decades now—creates a character so embodied and complete, it doesn’t matter that we don’t always get the motivations behind his impulsive acts. The seeming disconnect between this painter’s chaotic personal life and the harmonious compositions he creates only deepens, and enhances, the mystery.
As we first encounter Turner, he’s in late middle age, already a renowned painter who spends most of his time in London (in a refreshing break from biopic convention, there are no onscreen titles announcing the place or date, or marking the passage of time). He lives with his father (a twinkling Paul Jesson)—who also serves as his studio assistant and sole confidant—and with a devoted, long-suffering and somewhat simpleminded housekeeper named Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson, in an immensely moving performance). When the mood strikes him, Turner avails himself of Hannah as an outlet for his sexual urges—an extension of her cleaning duties that Hannah seems to tolerate more than enjoy, though after one brusque encounter she does reach for him with what seems like affection. (Like much of what other people do for Turner, the gesture goes entirely unnoticed.) Turner’s ex-mistress (Ruth Sheen), now mother to his two grown daughters, pays a call now and then to issue grating (but accurate) recriminations about his neglect of his own children and, as the movie begins, a newborn grandchild.
The death of his adored father sinks the saturnine Turner into an even deeper gloom. His fame as a painter has also attracted an irksome crowd of bohemian hangers-on, including the impoverished younger painter Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), who continually tries to borrow money from Turner while openly resenting his success. The cranky, almost feral Turner deals poorly with the social niceties of his rarefied artistic milieu. He especially loathes the snobbish, competitive yearly salons at the Royal Academy of Arts—meticulously recreated in a bravura scene in which Turner touches up a canvas on-site in an attempt to show up his prissy archrival, the painter John Constable. But for all his constitutive misanthropy, Turner harbors a strain of tender feeling that reveals itself at odd times. In an exquisite early moment, he meets a young woman at a house party playing a harpsichord. Declaring the piece—Dido’s suicide aria from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas—to be one of his favorites, he joins her in song for a moment, his voice hoarse and froggish, his eyes welling with tears. It’s the first time we sense the depth of this closed-off man’s appreciation for artistic beauty, not to mention his well-hidden softer side.
Much later on (this 2½-hour film covers a span of about 25 years), Turner’s habit of decamping to the seaside town of Margate to paint in peace leads to his last and seemingly most peaceful relationship, with the warmhearted widow Sophia Booth (the wonderful Marion Bailey). It’s an odd match on its surface, and the scenes in which he clumsily woos her over glasses of sherry, surprising even himself with his abrupt declarations of ardor, are among the film’s funniest. But we do get a sense of what this attention-weary painter—in the context of his day, an art star—would find to enjoy in the company of his down-to-earth, plain-spoken landlady.
Mr. Turner is much slower moving and less incident-packed than Topsy-Turvy, Leigh’s bawdy and rollicking 1999 backstage comedy about the original production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Especially in the middle hour, there’s a sense of narrative roominess, as if Leigh isn’t so much shaping Turner’s life into a story as simply letting it unfold before us in a series of everyday vignettes. But Mr. Turner does resemble Topsy-Turvy in its meticulous yet vibrant recreation of the past and its ever-expanding thematic amplitude. This is a movie not only about one particular artist, but about art as both a field of human endeavor and an object of shifting cultural and economic value. Late in his life, Turner’s work began to move toward a kind of proto-abstraction, with broad washes of color so loosely painted they’re all but unrecognizable as landscapes. Popular opinion turned against him (as Leigh shows in the form of a mocking music-hall skit) and his once-coveted paintings ceased to sell like as they used to. But Turner’s late style, now recognized as a radical innovation in painting, was praised by a few of his more forward-thinking contemporaries, including the critic John Ruskin (who appears here as an insufferably self-impressed fop played by Joshua McGuire).
Dick Pope’s light-flooded cinematography turns the movie theater screen into a capacious canvas that’s equally suited to grand outdoor vistas (a vivid coral-tinged sunset on the Thames) and humble domestic interiors (a rough kitchen table on which sits the head of a just-butchered, still-hairy pig). The score by Gary Yershon is unexpectedly modern and spare, interrupting the sense of period verisimilitude and leaving the viewer a little off balance, as if to remind us that Turner, too, wasn’t quite of own time. What Leigh’s interested in are not his subject’s bolts of inspiration at the easel, though we do occasionally witness Turner at work in a primal state of absorption, spitting onto the brush and slapping on solid base coats of paint as if whitewashing a building. Leigh seeks to give us life in mid-1800s London as Turner might have seen it, in all its ordinary misery and beauty and—that word again—mystery. I don’t think it’s spoiling much to reveal that J.M.W. Turner dies at the end of his own late-life biopic, given that that actual event took place 163 years ago. But I won’t spoil the stark poetry of Turner’s last words (taken, like much else in the film, direct from biographical accounts), in which the man known as “the painter of light” bids an ecstatic farewell to the world he spent his life trying to capture on canvas.