There’s a painstaking perfectionism in the stunning landscapes of England’s J.M.W. Turner, and in “Mr. Turner.” England’s greatest filmmaker in the field of grumpy eccentrics, Mike Leigh, gives us a portrait of the artist as a misanthropic genius.
Turner respected clouds, landscape, golden sunlight, distant buildings, the sea and sailing ships. He esteems everything but humanity. He’s hailed as one of the greatest masters of Romantic painting, but good luck finding starry-eyed affection in his watercolors. For Joseph Mallord William Turner, people were rather an afterthought, both on canvas and in his personal life.
Leigh’s biography, set in Victorian London at the mid-19th century, casts British character actor Timothy Spall as the difficult, reclusive master. A specialist in unkempt curmudgeons, Spall is dazzling as the mostly dialogue-free gargoyle (he won best actor at the Cannes festival). His Turner grunts and mumbles and grumbles when he is not at work, slashing the image with knifelike brush strokes, or spitting saliva on it and scraping it with his fingernails. And he would much rather be at work than among people. Wealthy supporters of his work get half-tolerant treatment, women generally worse.
Leigh loves unconventional studies of prestigious characters, having given us a tart sketch of Gilbert and Sullivan’s resentful partnership in 1999’s “Topsy-Turvy.” Here he presents the last quarter-century of Turner’s life, when his brusque personality grows odder and his sparse set of friends shrinks smaller. Here and there we get suggestions of why that might be. We meet Turner’s poor working-class father, the only person he fully adores. Paul Jesson is cheerful as the old shop owner, delighted by his son’s talent and working as his studio assistant with honest enjoyment. His mother, we learn, was an actual lunatic.
Turner’s own performance as a parent is a tad on the raving side, too. He never married, although he had two daughters with his former mistress Sarah Danby (played as a hilarious, queenly she-devil by the superb character actress Ruth Sheen). The pair’s nasty meetings after their separation, inevitably involving financial demands, are wonderful verbal slapstick, each trying to deliver a conversational heart attack to the other.
Turner is not the type to lend attention and care, let alone love. His housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), from whom he expects occasional sex and no comment, suffers year after year in a rising state of pain and loneliness.
He is not odious to everyone. When his painting excursions to the seaside introduce him to cheery widowed landlady Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), she becomes his final mistress and they find mutual contentment. Silent Hannah, however, is still assigned to keep the workplace clean.
Running 2 ½ hours, “Mr. Turner” is a rich portrait of England at a particularly scabrous period. We come to understand how the artist’s talent rescued him from a dreadful childhood, and how it stopped short of leading him to a satisfactory life. As much as he respects history’s reports on Turner, Leigh offers his own shrewd interpretations. Here when Spall utters Turner’s last words, he could be reverently saying “The sun is god,” as has been widely stated, or simply a blunt grumble, “The sun is gone.”