Mr. Turner (UK: 2014): Timothy Spall and a 349 degree view of an artist

Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner presents as close to a 360 view of a character as I think one can have on film without employing a cat scan. It is outstanding, if a bit long. I am not certain who is going to be nominated next month for best actor for the Academy Awards, but if Timothy Spall isn’t at least in the mix, I am not certain what an actor has to do to get there. I guess maybe he could talk more and grunt less, but my goodness, he takes to the role of the English painter JMW Turner with zeal.


The film is a domestic and social portrait of one of the pivotal artists in history during the last 25 years of his life. Turner kept sketchbooks but he was not a diarist, so we don’t have any deep insights into what he was thinking at any particular time. The movie is true to that mystery. The social scenes in the movie are probably drawn the letters and diaries of others who met him. But even without the deep psychological study, Leigh has produced one of the most advanced profiles of an artist and his times that I have seen.

It is a highly art literate film. This is one of those bio-pics where one probably needs to be familiar with the subject before going in. Leigh is not trying to educate the audience in the history of the art scene of the Romantic period in England. Realistically, characters don’t announce themselves and then explain who they are. They all know one another, so they don’t feel the need to explain themselves. For instance, when Turner attends the annual Royal Academy exhibition, we are introduced to a room full of painters and sculptors who we know, but who aren’t really properly introduced. They are rather name checked. There isn’t any exposition about the Academy and its place in art during that time. Late in the film, Turner is at the academy when his star has started to fade looking at a few Pre-Raphaelite paintings, which he greets with a chuckle/grunt (by the end of the film, you’ll come to understand the various moods of Turner grunts), we aren’t told exactly why he would find them a bit of a joke. Others may try to explain why they like his paintings and what they get out of them, but he never has a long conversation with anyone explaining his inspiration for what he is doing. The list goes on and on in the who’s who of refined circles that this son of a barber finds himself in.

That this film is about Turner is reflected more in the choices of the colors and quality of light chosen for the film, than any “aha” moments where we see Turner passing scenes that would become subjects for his paintings. Yes, there are references to famous works, but what always has distinguished Turner in this late phase is the palate and abstraction more than any specific painting. Dick Pope captures those colors. He also captures Turner. In the still I have selected above, we see Turner on one of the many walks he takes during the film. In this case, from behind. Spall is shot from the left, from the right, from the front, from the top down and bottom up throughout the film. His profile is distinct and were this not a film about an artist that probably won’t be seen by more than 20,000 people in this country, that profile would become pop-cultural iconic. It is that distinctive. When Leigh wants to do a 360 degree view, he covers as many angles as possible. Heck, there is even a doctor come to visit to report on the condition of his lungs and heart, which is the closest we can come to an inside view using the technology of the times.

Turner in this movie I think is presented as a an artist on the border, which is his place in history. In the way he is shot on his walks, he always appears to be near the edge either of a lake or a seashore and when he is on dry land, the horizon is lowered or raised, placing him near to the edge of the frame. As a character, Turner moves that way as well. He clearly has risen above his roots, and is comfortable in new circles, but never really belongs there. He grunts and lacks refined manners. But he is literate and can carry on a conversation in a salon if he must. He doesn’t see himself as revolutionary, although his work in abstraction would be taken up as the major thrust of Western painting after the advent of photography. He is almost, but not quite across those borders.

The relationships he has with his father (Paul Jesson) and the women of the movie are probably the most speculative part of the film. He was a very private person and there is some notable consternation about his treatment of Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), his housekeeper with whom he carries on an uninspiring sexual relationship throughout the film. He barely acknowledges her. Domestically, Turner simply refuses to have what the Victorians would later come to view as the standard domestic life of any sort. Father and son have a very devoted and loving relationship, but Turner will not add a wife. He will not acknowledge his children by an earlier mistress (Ruth Sheen), even by attending his daughter’s funeral. At the same time, when he finally does “settle down”, it is with a twice widowed Sophia Booth, whom he also does not marry, but instead plays the role of Mr. Booth. As far as Turner’s private life goes, Mr. Booth is married…the public Mr. Turner never will be.

I would like to recommend this film more, but there is a certain snore-factor that makes me reluctant. I found it fascinating and beautiful, but not emotionally engaging and I am the type of film-watcher who doesn’t go to films solely to test my trivial knowledge. That said, of the bio-pics I have watched this year, Mr. Turner is by far and away the best and most comprehensive. The acting is outstanding, the production and cinematography are divine, but I have to admit that 2 1/2 hours may be a bit long to follow one character around.

***1/2 of Five

IMDB: Mr. Turner

6 thoughts on “Mr. Turner (UK: 2014): Timothy Spall and a 349 degree view of an artist

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