What lingers most strongly from Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, which focuses on famed landscapist J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) from roughly 1828 until his death in 1851, is a sound: the piggish grunt and growl that Spall readily punctuates his lines with. When the painter weeps over the young age of a prostitute he visits, or exerts himself while taking Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), his maid, from behind, these guttural expulsions build into storms of wheezing and phlegmy coughs. It’s an ugly, off-putting, but irrefutably human detail of performance in a film built on just such nuances, one that takes the inherent complexities of depicting human experience with anything resembling sincerity, empathy, or realism as its premier concern.
It’s an implicit fact in Turner’s work that human beings are often a minute, even microscopic presence, if they’re even featured at all. The world at large, nature and industry, were Turner’s chief fascinations, and Leigh’s script suggests that Turner was incapable of painting anything that was relatable to the human condition due to a preternatural sensitivity to the despair of society; he could only bear to relate the world’s colossal beauty and mystery. When Spall’s Turner challenges a visitor to spot an elephant in a composition, the visitor is charmed to discover that the animal is rendered no bigger than a fleck against an oncoming storm. Ultimately, Leigh’s film works as a response to this perspective, conjuring a myriad of faces and visions of a society overflowing with self-absorbed artists, privileged appreciators, diseased maids, rosy-cheeked wives, and innumerable others, and he sets Turner as equal-footed to his subjects in nature and society.
Indeed, in the seaside town of Margate, where Turner takes up with Ms. Booth (Marion Bailey), a widow, Leigh captures the painter as a miniscule figure against the tanned beaches of the Thames, and the writer-director places Spall as a barely noticeable part of the activity on passenger ships or among the fervor of fishmongers. The varieties of views that Leigh offers speaks less to the film’s seeming lack of perspective than it does to his view of film as an expansion of the possibilities of depiction that Turner seemingly could never surmount. In a telling scene, Turner takes John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), an admiring patron who would become his greatest champion, to task after the young man ignorantly dismisses a late, famed artist for being unable to match Turner’s ability, which only came from time and knowledge of techniques discovered by artists who came before him.
At one point, Turner visits a studio to have a photo taken of himself and remarks at the ease at which the machine works, neither seeing it as tragedy nor triumph. And the film itself works as a collection of visual and verbal discussions on how to view the world and history, to see the horror or the splendor. A potent early image features Turner’s father, William (Paul Jesson), a retired barber, carefully shaving the whiskers off of a pig’s head procured from the butchers, the barbarism of the animal’s decapitated head juxtaposed with the careful, elegant practice of the razor. For Leigh, who’s built his career largely on unsparing kitchen-sink dramas and period pieces, Mr. Turner is an astute summation of his glum view of humanity, but also a challenge to this disposition and his own pessimistic perspective.
The writer-director doesn’t totally transcend his mode, if only because he seems too happy to polish Turner’s altruism. While visiting a rich benefactor and friend, Turner is besieged for money by Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), a less successful contemporary who specializing in animal studies, and a visiting member of the Royal Academy of Arts slights Haydon for his lack of humility, even as his wife and children starve. As quick as Leigh is to harp on Haydon’s pride and self-pity, he’s equally fond of reminding the audience of Turner’s humbleness. The filmmaker even indulges a scene where Turner refuses a cumbersome payday in lieu of leaving his works to be hung in museums, a strangely on-the-nose confirmation of his blue-collar sensibilities.
Leigh’s fascination with class every now and again slips into condescension, but this only faintly mires his intentions in Mr. Turner. On his death bed, Turner’s cries out “the sun is God,” and Leigh’s compositions seem tailored more than ever on the way light filters into rooms, reveals beauty, and overwhelms mere mortals. Looking at Turner’s The Slave Ship, Ruskin remarks not on the horror of the narrative, but the way the light hits the water. Beauty, and its home in nature and light, is crucial, but it’s just as important to see the scars and scabs of infection on Hannah’s neck, the greying skin of Turner’s father only moments before passing, or the curvature of Ms. Booth’s nose. For Leigh, film is nothing if it doesn’t capture the odd and unappealing as often as it does the beautiful, and the holiness of light is useless if it doesn’t reveal the ugliness of life as often as it finds its glory.