Mr. Turner is Leigh’s most ambitious film in budget and scope, with its focus on the last few years of British artist JMW Turner’s life.
Mike Leigh is known for his contemporary British comedies (Happy Go-Lucky) and dramas (Vera Drake, Naked), but this sprawling biopic could have been his most conventional film. Thankfully, the movie resists the trappings of most biopics, and takes a meditative look at Turner’s life (played by Timothy Spall) and his shifting position in the art world. Leigh turns to Turner at the height of his career, where his fellow artists and patrons celebrate his paintings of naval ships, slave ships, and landscapes. But soon enough, the Industrial Revolution interferes with its railways and naval ships going to the scrap heap. Turner is a man out of time, and the film takes an elegiac tone as Turner’s new artwork is mocked and and he tries to catch up with the era despite his dire health.
It’s an episodic film with touching and hilarious vignettes of Turner’s complete disconnect with women, like his maid (Dorothy Atkinson), whose body he reaches for when his beloved father passes away. We also see him weeping wildly in front of a young prostitute that he’s sketching. Turner is a fascinating character, and Spall delivers a towering performance complete with his usual grunting, snarling, and cockney accent.
The film should be seen on the big screen, as cinematographer Dick Pope applies a painterly approach to scenes, providing stunning sunsets, cliffs, and ships. Much like Turner’s work, Pope often frames humans as minutiae to the expansive countryside that Turner walks and sketches across. Mr. Turner is the definitive film of Leigh and Spall’s illustrious 30-year partnership that shouldn’t be missed.
Watch Mr. Turner at Vancouver International Film Festival on October 2 at 12:00 p.m. at Centre for Performing Arts, and on October 8 at 1:00 p.m. at Vancouver Playhouse.