Having now finally seen Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, I need to add another name to my list of performances worthy of a Best Actor Oscar that didn’t even get shortlisted among the nominees. Timothy Spall is simultaneously repellent and spellbinding as perhaps England’s greatest painter ever, J. M. W. Turner: onscreen in nearly every scene, the ugly centerpiece to one of the most gorgeous cinematic panoramas to come our way in a long time.
It may perhaps seem uncharitable to place such immediate attention on the fact that the immensely talented Spall also happens to be arguably the most unsightly thespian in contemporary British theater and film. And you’d be correct to presume that I’d get into a feminist huff over some critic complaining right off the bat that some lead actress isn’t beautiful enough for the part. But stick with me here for a moment: The movie itself is all about seeing, about appearances, about the genius needed to spot shining beauty amidst the ugliness and poverty of England in the coal-hazed days of the early Industrial Revolution.
Mr. Turner rubs the viewer’s nose right off the bat in the disjunct between the painter’s porcine lack of grace and the transcendent world that he perceives and renders in works that increasingly baffle the stuffy academic aesthetics of his day, anticipating the glories of Impressionism and the Luminism of our own Hudson River School. As portrayed in this film, Turner expresses himself mainly in piglike grunts and guttural outbursts suggesting a Cockney version of the dirty old man on the park bench played by Arte Johnson on Laugh-In. The camera lingers lovingly on Spall’s beady eyes, upturned nostrils, pouchy jowls and nonexistent chin, then presents in parallel a hog’s head in a street market that becomes a feast to celebrate Turner’s return home from a jaunt to the Continent. His elderly father William Turner (Paul Jesson), a retired barber, is shown shaving the bristles off the hog’s cheeks, then off his son’s; the filmmaker’s message is inescapable.
The younger Turner – already in his 50s when the narrative begins – behaves like a swine toward most women as well. He coarsely rebuffs requests for financial support from his bitter ex-mistress Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), denies his paternity of her two grown daughters (Sandy Foster and Amy Dawson), shows no interest in his grandchild and refuses to mourn when one of his daughters dies in childbirth. He periodically uses his faithful (and implausibly smitten) housemaid Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) as a sexual appliance, never kissing her, showing any gesture of affection nor even making eye contact.
He makes exceptions from this general disregard for females for the brilliant Scottish astronomer/mathematician/scientist – or in the language of the day, “natural philosopher” – Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville), whose experiments with the physics of sunlight fascinate him, and for Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), the landlady of a seaside flat that he likes to rent periodically for its views. Eventually Turner becomes romantically involved with the widow Booth, but whether it’s for her classical profile or her kindness and cheerful humor never becomes entirely clear.
Leigh’s Turner isn’t much fonder of men, either – “Humanity,” he grunts in disgust at one point – but is able to suppress his bad manners around wealthy patrons and collectors and influential art critics, even while it’s clear that he scorns their aesthetic pretensions. The great essayist John Ruskin, father of the Arts and Crafts movement, is inexplicably savaged here, portrayed by Joshua McGuire as an effete, ridiculous, simpering twit who can’t pwonounce his Rs. Among his artist peers Turner can be convivial, if he respects their work, but ruthlessly dismissive if he doesn’t or sees them as rivals.
With the film beginning two-thirds of the way through Turner’s life, we pick up snippets of backstory that cast small flashes of illumination on how he has become such a self-involved, uningratiating fellow who suffers no fools gladly and feels entitled to do and take whatever he likes. What we don’t see are his labors to learn his art, his many years as a meticulous draftsman: It all just seems like an unearned gift that flows instantaneously and constantly, as if he were permanently grafted to his Muse like a power hose to a fire hydrant. Leigh’s Turner is a man utterly without filters, whether social or aesthetic; what comes in through his piggy little eyes comes out through his hand, seemingly without effort. He can’t help it; it’s what he was born to do.
A biopic like this would not work without cinematography capable of conveying the golden skies and stormy seascapes that Turner channeled into art that was many decades ahead of his time, and Dick Pope succeeds at this brilliantly. The art direction is topnotch as well, with sets, props and costumes that deliver meticulous and historically accurate detail without ever for a moment romanticizing the grimy England of the mid-19th century. Nor is this the sort of Hollywoodized historical drama where the people mostly look like models and actors; it’s a world where humanity and its works are ugly, but nature is still sublime. Like Mrs. Somerville with her prism, the deeply flawed J. M. W. Turner captured those intimations of immortality for all time on canvas. And Mike Leigh, Timothy Spall and Dick Pope help us see a little more of what the “Painter of Light” may have seen.
Mr. Turner, Feb. 26 - Mar. 5, Upstate Films, 6415 Montgomery Street/Route 9, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-2515, https://upstatefilms.org.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.