What makes a great opening shot of a film? It could simply be beautiful to look at, or intriguing enough to hook you into the story. Better still, it could perfectly distill a film’s themes into a single, compelling image. By any of these measures, the opening shot of Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner is one of the all-time greats, and is just as beautiful as one of his subject’s paintings: A peaceful English field near sunset, the stark landscape punctuated only by a mighty windmill. Into the shot walk two women in strange rustic attire, conversing in a foreign tongue. Their unusual appearance draws us in, and the camera tracks with them, but it stops abruptly when it lands on Turner in the background. He is standing alone, painting the sunset with unrelenting focus, purposefully oblivious to the people passing him by.
The obsessive, anti-social artist is hardly a new subject in film, and it could be due for a revision, but that is not Leigh’s style. He doesn’t deal in archetypes. In fact, he hardly seek to uncover anything profound about his characters at all, preferring simply to identify and bring them to life with as much nuance as they would have in reality. Do we ever really learn what made Vera Drake or Poppy from Happy-Go-Lucky tick? Not quite, but they are no less real for it.
Here, Leigh shows great respect for his eponymous subject – the late 19th century British painter of landscapes and shipwrecks known to many as “the painter of light” – by refusing to turn him into a symbol, an archetype, or subject for psychoanalysis. As we see him in the last years of his life, J.M.W. Turner either abandons or loses every person that once mattered to him (his father, his child, his friends) before he himself shuffles off in the final reel, but Leigh neither pities nor forgives him. Rather, he lets his brilliant lead actor embody him, building a singular lead performance that renders any comparisons moot.
As Turner, veteran character actor (and frequent Leigh collaborator) Timothy Spall grunts and grumbles his way through the film, chewing the scenery and spitting it back out with contempt. He paints Turner as a man of animal needs. The first few scenes find him gorging himself on pig’s head, casually groping his female caretaker, and refusing to even acknowledge the presence of his two daughters. But his true nature is found in the interplay between the ethereal and the corporeal. How can man so primitive create such works of elegant beauty? Leigh’s script refuses to tell us, but Spall’s performance comes closer. His grunts, for example, emerge as a language of their own; at first, they simply indicate Turner’s rudeness towards others, but eventually they take on tones of sadness and resignation. He grunts, perhaps, because speaking the truth is just too painful.
While Spall dominates the film, he is hardly the only stand-out in the cast. Marion Bailey, as Turner’s final and most intimate lover, is a classic working-class Leigh creation of humility and perseverance, while Dorothy Atkinson cuts a tragic figure as Turner’s long-suffering, mostly silent caretaker.
And yet despite this abundance of memorable performances (which, although common to Leigh’s films, should never be taken for granted), the plot of Mr. Turner never quite coheres, and the film fails to justify its own existence. The feeling of intrinsic purpose that marked much of Leigh’s filmography is oddly missing here, and while his refusal to contort Turner into a nice, tidy package is admirable, it leaves the film shapeless. Perhaps biopics are simply a weak spot for Leigh; his Topsy-Turvy, which told of another great 19th century English artist, suffered some of these same flaws.
But if the film meanders, so be it. Leigh has earned the right to do so. Even without the narrative precision, Mr. Turner is worth it alone for Spall’s performance and the gorgeous shots that Leigh and his longtime cinematographer Dick Pope have composed. Late in the film, Turner visits a coarse American photographer to have his portrait taken – the camera was a new invention at the time – and, after learning how the contraption works, bemoans his newfound certainty that photographs will replace paintings in the public’s imagination. It is a delicious irony that Leigh seems to have accomplished just that. There are more than a dozen shots in the film – many of them landscapes, like that great opener – that could have been brushed by Turner himself. Taking their compositions as metaphor, it is easy to find a clearer distillation of Leigh’s amorphous take on the artist: The truth is in the interplay of light and shadow, and the sun always streams in from the back, illuminating its subject, but keeping its source ultimately, painfully out of reach.