Directed by Mike Leigh
Opens December 19
Mike Leigh’s film about JMW Turner would be just as magnificent were it not about an artist but simply a man of his time (and not just ahead of it). Which is another way of saying that Timothy Spall’s performance as the self-assured, brusque, deeply Romantic painter creates such a complete personality and physical presence that the notion that he is historically a Great Man is very nearly less impressive than the seamless character artistry transpiring before our eyes. Spall finds the laboriously gallant delivery, the lung-ravaging horks, the weak-chin pursing and walking-stick brandishing, the swagger and the tearful jags, the preternatual clarity of intelligence that defines an artist of truly far-reaching vision.
Turner grumbles and stalks through a London that, without being bustling with crowds and the squeak of carriages, feels alive through the society he keeps, and for whom he becomes more than the grunting caricature that early reviews of the film have made him out to be. Instead of plotting the causes and effects for genius, Leigh arranges his scenes as if himself sketching in a painting, until before we know it, a complete picture is swimming before us on the screen (especially in the lovely ramshackle interiors photographed by Dick Pope); it’s not shuffled as Peter Watkins’s superb, scene-averse Edvard Munch, but it achieves much of the same period detail and also quotes from texts of the period. In fact, Turner’s persuasively archaic dialogue—boisterously backslapping with Dad or sparring with gallery competition, staring deep into a landlady’s eyes to praise her “profound beauty,” or offhandedly referring to his latest project as a marine piece—perhaps places us within the moment of the early 19th-century more than anything else (more precisely than the halting speech of Casanova in Story of My Death achieved its own defamiliarization).
Leigh and Spall even pull off greatest-hits scenes, as when Turner rebuffs a wealthy entrepreneur who wants to buy out his entire oeuvre. But while Leigh’s working methods doubtlessly foster an environment in which the actor can thrive, Spall is the one who works up the internal storm: Rarely has an actor been so persuasive at simply showing a person stopped short and being overtaken with feeling, again and again, a pure openness to someone or something or some moment that is what allowed him to create what he did. He does so, too, without apologetically idealizing him as a Cockney genius made good, and along with the vulnerability his sensitivity also involves, there’s also a mysterious (or not so mysterious) need to detach when necessary: his outraged former wife and bereft children he gives little more than a stone face, for reasons we can hardly ascertain; he partakes of his own measure of class privilege in servicing his servant (Dorothy Atkinson, incongruously also a bit of comic relief); and even his empathetic tolerance for a more difficult artistic soul, quarrelsome painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (Martin Savage), runs out.
Haydon makes a fine foil to Turner, a could-have-been alongside him, and Ruskin turns up not as Leigh’s rebuke to critics everywhere but as a major historical figure whose own monumental influence requires looking past dandyism to his often genuinely insightful observation and, most of all, appreciation (as even Turner is capable of recognizing). And as coined by his latter-life partner Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), and in some way expressed by the oddly ethereal unsaxophone-sounding saxophone lick floating in the score, Turner’s “fine feeling” comes through.