Artist J.M.W. Turner was renowned in his day for painting shipwrecks. It’s fair to say his personal life was also a wreck. Turner was a man who tried to ignore his mistress and the two children their union created. He helped commit his mother to an institution. He took advantage of his housekeeper sexually. His interactions with other artists were not polite, to say the least. These are not the makings of a man worth remembering.
And yet, in the hands of Mike Leigh, the film Mr. Turner works rather well. Instead of focusing on the man, particularly the man in his prime, the film opens to the broader picture surrounding Turner. It’s a sumptuous look at 19th century England, down to the aesthetics and vernacular of the time. At the center is a committed performance from Timothy Spall, who grunts his way through a portrait of an artist after the peak of his success.
That point of focus is one key to the film’s success. By keeping the story to the last quarter century of Turner’s life, the film gets to see Turner on top of his talents and artistic reputation, and the slow descent that inevitably comes. Turner’s work was once considered extraordinary. Looking at it from a modern perspective, it’s easy to dismiss as something you’d find as stock art in a mass-produced frame. By the end of Turner’s life, his art was similarly appreciated (meaning not) by the public. It helps that Leigh and Spall don’t attempt to soften Turner up. He’s a man of contradictions, surely: he’s awful to housekeeper Hannah, only using her for cleaning or sex, but he’s good to Sophia, who owns a home where he occasionally stays.
Mr. Turner is better taken as a whole, rather than trying to make connections from scene to scene. The film frequently jumps from one scene to an unrelated one that can take place some time later. There’s little in terms of real plot to the film. It’s more of an experience than anything, and one which invites viewers to lose themselves. It’s an intriguing exploration of a specific time and place, one that’s fully committed to recreating its time period. For fans of historical dramas, it’s a must-see.