TIFF 2014 Review: ‘Mr. Turner’

Mr Turner Timothy Spall

It’s hard to describe exactly what noise Timothy Spall makes throughout Mr. Turner, the new J.M.W. Turner biopic from director Mike Leigh. It’s not quite a snort. It bears certain similarities to a harumph. I’m tempted to label it a “squonk,” but that’s only because I am in the habit of making up my own labels. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s a sort of Rosetta Stone for our dear Mr. Turner, a man who expresses himself in ways that are hard to comprehend but easy to love. 

Mike Leigh’s naturalistic filmmaking style gets a proper polish in Mr. Turner. Like Topsy Turvy before it, Leigh is turning his eye towards the past, examining the life and work of an artistic genius and taking great pleasure in replicating his works on camera. Spall spits and whiffs and scratches away at his canvas, painting one boat-centric seascape after another, and Leigh likes to transition from the creation of these great works to some painterly cinescapes of his own, briefly confusing the viewer into thinking that these stunning creations of nature were produced by hand. It’s a canny way to weave Turner’s influences into his life, which takes up most of the running time and is at turns difficult, devastating and absolutely divine.

As J.M.W. Turner, Spall waddles from one locale to another, sketching and painting and also making new homes for himself. His house is an artist’s wallow, packed with books and trinkets and stains of paint. His housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) helps him keep it that way; it’s as lived-in and loved as she feels in Turner’s company. Turner occasionally takes advantage of Hannah, sexually, in ways that make her feel appreciated. Her lifelong devotion is borderline inexplicable, and it seems apt that her disconcerting skin condition devolves along with the conditions of the home that Mr. Turner seems to take for granted.

And it is perhaps easy to understand why Mr. Turner takes long walks to another town altogether, forming an easy and cumberless bond with an unassuming landlady named Sophia (Marion Bailey), who succumbs to the artist’s charms long before she finally discovers who he is, and why everyone else thinks he’s so damned important. Sophia is his vacation from snoot-worthy intelligentsia of 19th Century Great Britain, whose clashing egos and ongoing mini-dramas paint a portrait of these artists as small men doing very great things.

Mr. Turner is a large man, literally and figuratively, who bumbles from place to place with a waffling sense of purpose and random adventure. He ties himself to the mast of a ship to see the gales of a storm up close and personal, and sabotages the occasional painting just to prove a rather smug point about using too much red. We learn of Mr. Turner’s character through his biggest dalliances and tiniest escapades, and although he contains a wealth of feeling, he can only express it with a squonk. Or maybe a harumph. Possibly a snort.

Yet in the matters of the arts, and the matters of the mind, Mr. Turner is just as sharp as any, batting down the cheap jabs of an amateur art critic who at turns argues that there is no place in artistic appreciation for cynicism, then argues that one of the great masters is an utter bore. Never perhaps realizing that he himself is the tedious one, interjecting flimsy rhetoric into a conversation about gooseberries that already seemed like it would never end. This was the world an artistic genius was forced to be a part of (and still is, oh hello internet). Mr. Turner illustrates the worlds he made for himself, and allows them to speak for themselves, or at least through the confused admiration of the people who held him dear, and not so much the critics… ahem. But anyway.

Mr. Turner would seem to be one of Mike Leigh’s finest ruminations on the achievements and failures of personal expression; it absorbs you as it pushes you away, forcing you to watch from a distance all of the moments that make up a man. It comments on itself, as indeed most art does (or at least, as most art is accused of), but it never feels impersonal and it never feels twee. It is a masterpiece of a film with truly uncanny performances from Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey, and it is not to be missed.


William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and the host of The B-Movies Podcast and The Blue Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.