As patient as a surgeon, Mike Leigh loves observing the situations he writes and directs and without the burden of proving his hypotheses. Mr. Turner, his best film since Vera Drake and possibly Topsy Turvy, doesn’t eschew the conventions of biopics. In this 135-minute story about the British painter, J.M.W. Turner paints, suffers, becomes popular, and has women trouble. He also snarls and snorts a great deal – in the hands of Timothy Spall, a doddering bull about to charge. But the wonder of Leigh’s film is in his precise compositions and exemplary balance of light and shadow. The homunculus at the center of this film Leigh treats with amused respect.
This Turner is a man of scabrous intelligence, affectionate for expediency’s sake but vibrant only in the company of his beloved father (Paul Jesson). Two children conceived with Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), the aunt of housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson)—whom he also takes periodic advantage of—he ignores. He impresses buyers with the breadth of his mythological references and correct use of “reticule” and “crepuscular.” When the Royal Academy of Arts’ endorsement of John Constable’s proper, exquisite, dead portraiture bores him silly, he retreats to the beaches of Margate, where the mistress of his boarding house Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) eventually becomes his, but not after a courtship of exquisite awkwardness. A scene in which Turner plies Mrs. Booth with sherry as if rediscovering his manners is among the sharpest and funniest I’ve seen this year.
Inevitably highlighting the disjunction between the numinous paintings and their pustulent creator, as so many biopics do, Mr. Turner nevertheless won’t draw conclusions. Its subject is the febrile London artistic community of the 1830s; Leigh could make films about the tart, smiling Mary Somerville (Leslie Manville), accustomed to condescension and ready with a retort and a Mona Lisa smile; or John Ruskin himself. As played by Joshua McGuire, the great critic and horrifying husband doesn’t talk so much as oraculate, his vowels as wide as Turner’s waistline. But Leigh avoids another biopic trap: although this Ruskin understands Turner’s aims, no “relationship” as such is shown (Ruskin in fact comes off pompous and self-absorbed); he is just another person who flits through Turner’s life, to be used like a brush and discarded.
The other temptation in films about painters, even in ones as strong as Lust for Life and Vincent & Theo, is to use a cinematographic “palette”: an art direction commensurate with the life under examination. But cameraman Dick Pope’s influences are more literary. Turner’s shuffling around the shanties and drifts of Marge is closer to Our Mutual Friend’s Gaffer Hexam, in love with the corners. Similarly the poor light in Turner’s home, Leigh implies, might have led to the uncanny, almost radioactive reproductions of sunlight in Turner’s work. Those conditions also deepens the pathos in Hannah’s misbegotten affection for her master: deformed by psoriasis, she gets pulled from shadows and thrown back into them.
“When I look in the mirror I see a gargoyle,” Turner admits. Later in life he looks again and sees an institution. Famous enough to be spoofed on stage, he lingers long enough to learn that Queen Victoria recoiled in horror at his late canvases. “It’s indicative of mental disease!” the critics said, and “He has taken leave of form altogether,” the latter not a compliment in the art world until Claude Monet’s water lilies and haystacks. Refusing an admirer’s huge offer to buy his work is a sign of his flinty integrity. Or daftness. Mr. Turner doesn’t force the audience to choose, and besides J.M.W. Turner was all of them. With scripts, performers, and a camera that is adjudicatory instead of prosecutorial, Mike Leigh might be the greatest living believer in the adage that Jean Renoir put into the mouth of his Octave in The Rules of the Game: everyone has their reasons, except Leigh sees nothing awful in it.