Mr. Turner (2014)
Written & Directed by Mike Leigh
I loved Mr. Turner! We’re in an age of the most cookie cutter formulaic biopic. Look at films like Bohemian Rhapsody, which follows a rigorous plot structure that doesn’t provide insight into its central figure. It’s not a new problem; it’s just so prevalent. Mr. Turner has no interest in exploring the early years of the English painter J.M.W. Turner, there’s no scene which shows him picking up a paintbrush for the first time as if guided by a divine hand. When we meet the main character, he’s in the last 25 years of his life, past a broken marriage where he doesn’t claim his two daughters, and whose only human connections are with his manager/father and an occasional tryst with his psoriasis riddled maid Hannah. This is not a pretty story but an honest one.
The work of Turner is in stark contrast to the man. The painter is a gruff, slovenly, proud man who responds to most inquiries with a wordless grunt. His work is a sublime recreation of the primal power of nature and studies of light’s interaction with the material. One episode is recounted in the film where Turner is tied to the mast of a ship so that he might get a different perspective for a painting. He also elicits the help of amateur “natural philosophers” in studying light, which leads to his work becoming more abstracted, focusing on the sun over the objects in the landscape. This change in style is what ultimately leads to Queen Victoria dismissing Turner’s work and has him living in the margins of an art community that once praised him.
Much like Another Year, Mike Leigh employs a very episodic structure to the film and spends the first act with scenes that may not feel as though they connect aside from the presence of Turner. Eventually, these disparate threads come together, and we can see how the painter constructed many lives for himself where all parties were not aware of the complexity of the situation. Turner is also shown to be intensely private with his feelings; when told by his ex-wife that one of his daughters had died he is cold and dismissive, but once left alone he breaks down in tears. The only relationship that has deep meaning for Turner is the one with his father, who has recentered his life around his son’s career. There is a level of father-son devotion and genuinely love that is rare, with no second act reveal that daddy was stealing the painter’s money. He loves seeing his son make beautiful art and showing it off.
At many times Mr. Turner veers into comedic territory a space I can’t say I’ve seen any biopics ever take on. Yes, there’s always moments of comedic relief, but this film has sequences which are pure comedy. Actor Timothy Spall creates such a strange and fascinating character in Turner, playing into his non-traditional movie looks. Leigh casts the film like a Coen Brothers movie with some of the most eccentric and bizarre looking faces, using the fashion of the time to emphasize the absurdity of Victorian England. While this is a true story I couldn’t help but feel, like a Coen Brothers film, this was a world wholly realized by Leigh. You won’t see a portrait of Victorian England like this in any other movie.