If the typical biopic diminishes the complexity of its subject’s life by chronicling it straightforwardly, Mr. Turner is exceptional for all the mystery it retains. Writer-director Mike Leigh’s latest features the kitchen-sink realism of his best films (Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake), but as with his most recent work (Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year), Mr. Turner also reaches for something deeper—almost ineffable—about existence that’s as poignant as it is wonderfully hard to pin down.
A longtime passion project finally seeing the light of day, this portrait of acclaimed 19th century British artist J.M.W. Turner flunks all the supposed tenets of the cinematic biopic. It doesn’t make a case for the painter’s legacy, nor does it labor diligently to “explain” his essence. Instead, Mr. Turner is merely a stunning encapsulation of a life, in the process effortlessly hitting upon universal themes of creativity, mortality, love and our lasting worth on a planet that will keep spinning long after we’re gone.
Wanting to make a movie about Turner for about two decades, Leigh didn’t spend that time worrying about solving the riddle of a painter whose emotional, evocative landscapes paved the way for the later Impressionists. Remembered as a volatile, cantankerous curmudgeon, Turner lends himself to a cinematic treatment. (He’s an artistic genius but a deeply flawed human being.) But one of Mr. Turner’s many remarkable qualities is how little Leigh cares about that familiar personality dichotomy. The Turner we see onscreen has many failings, but the movie doesn’t pit his merits and weaknesses against one another. Mr. Turner is neither scandalized nor wowed by his contradictions; the film accepts this man in full. Leigh’s two-and-a-half-hour film has more pressing concerns.
Turner is played magnificently by Timothy Spall, a frequent Leigh collaborator. Grunting, shuffling down the street like a slow-motion cannonball, Spall does nothing to deemphasize Turner’s un-cuddly temperament. (At one point in the film, Turner confesses that he hates looking into the mirror since all he sees staring back is a gargoyle. With his bad teeth and piercing, rat-like gaze, he’s not exaggerating much.) Like Leigh, Spall illuminates Turner by reinforcing his unknowability: This is a performance that’s both profoundly human and inscrutable, keeping us at a distance, always wondering what’s going on behind the man’s eyes.
Not surprisingly, then, Mr. Turner doesn’t have a plot as much as it has a series of incidents that, collectively, sum up a soul. Charting roughly 25 years in Turner’s life, leading up to his death in 1851, the film eschews the “ah-ha” moments of creative inspiration we often get in biopics. Instead, we see Turner after he’s already established himself as one of London’s most admired and popular painters. Nothing he does in Mr. Turner is totemic: He works on paintings; he callously disregards the affections of his long-suffering housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson)—that is, unless he’s in need of a quick screw; he inexplicably ignores an ex-lover (Ruth Sheen) who bore him two children, whom he also refuses to acknowledge; he socializes with his fellow painters, including one, Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), who has fallen out of favor with the Royal Academy; he loses someone close to him; he ends up finding love.
None of these events is portrayed as more important than any other, and although Mr. Turner is vividly rendered, Leigh tempers the momentousness of Turner’s time on Earth. Leigh’s films often ponder how the ordinariness of life defines what it means to be alive, how simple interactions provide insights into our shared fears and desires. Mr. Turner, like Topsy-Turvy before it, is set in the world of a revered artist, but Leigh’s fundamental fascination with the mundane remains.
If Mr. Turner resists elucidating the nuts and bolts of its central figure, what keeps us so glued to Leigh’s telling? Having seen the film twice now, I think it’s the calm confidence of the filmmaker’s approach. He and Spall trust us to be able to find our way into Turner’s milieu, dispensing with the biopic clichés to instead muse on the relationship between a person and his passion. Turner delivers no big speeches about the importance of art, but he doesn’t need to: He embodies his vocation through his very being, and we’re drawn in, looking for clues into his crusty, committed demeanor that aren’t easily forthcoming. I can’t think of a biopic that posed more questions than it offered solutions, and I can’t think of many that are this fully puzzling in such a beguiling way.
Rather than explaining Turner’s inner workings, Mr. Turner sketches a society, one in which modernity is always encroaching and the times are constantly a-changin’. Metal ships replace wooden ones. Painting styles that were once chic lose their cachet. This newfangled device called the camera enters the marketplace, transforming the way artists will depict their environment. Mr. Turner’s episodic nature—always serenely paced, never meandering—creates a snapshot of a time so tactile that it feels remarkably contemporary without losing any of its historical pull. For all of Leigh’s acclaim for creating potent characters—a byproduct of his extensive rehearsal process with his cast before even writing the script—he’s also a fabulous maker of indelible little universes. We see the past in Mr. Turner, but we feel all the anxieties and aspirations of the 21st century. The clothes and décor have changed—people fundamentally haven’t.
Mr. Turner doesn’t offer a Turner totally transformed by his experiences, which may prove to be a defining testament of its director. Almost 72, Mike Leigh has earned a reputation for stubborn, principled filmmaking, following his own muse without much concern for the shifting cinematic trends around him. Watching the irascible, talented Mr. Turner, one can see a lot of Mr. Leigh in him. And if this is a self-portrait, notice how unglamorous it is: Turner is no saint, and his physical deterioration in later years is viewed starkly. (The final images aren’t even of Turner, but rather two crucial people in his life, whom he treated very differently.) What we do in this world will perhaps outlive us, but once we’re gone we’ll have no way of knowing. This is the potentially dour note on which Mr. Turner ends. Only an artist like Leigh could make that so poignant, thought-provoking and oddly life-affirming.
Director: Mike Leigh
Writer: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage
Release Date: Dec. 19, 2014
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and Vice President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.