“An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.” -James Whistler
For years, I have not been able to warm to Mike Leigh’s vision of the world. His dramatic vignettes, while hitting varying degrees of poignancy, never added up to features that wowed me. But I must admit to being wowed by ‘Mr. Turner,’ his singular biopic about the last half of the life of British seascape painter J.M.W. Turner. It isn’t just Timothy Spall’s magnificent performance or even the jaw-dropping cinematography of Dick Pope that makes ‘Turner’ come to life – it’s the way that Leigh’s particular form of craftsmanship fits so well with the material.
As an audience, we’re often kept at somewhat of a distance from Turner. Pope’s early compositions often frame Spall with his back to us, only getting a brief glimpse of his reaction to conversation and events, which verbally isn’t much. But what Spall, Leigh, and Pope don’t say, they show. Very early on, there’s a scene at the Royal Academy in which Turner compliments a piano prodigy on her musical skills. She returns the favor by gushing over his visual artistry. It’s the one moment at the Academy – and one of the few in the first half of the film – where we really see Turner open up. He isn’t putting on a show of intellect or grace, it just flows forth naturally. Leigh contrasts this portrait with that of Turner’s disregard for hix ex-wife and children, which is contrasted even further by his heartbreaking grief over the death of his father (Paul Jesson).
Each of these moments varies in tone, atmosphere, and even lighting, suggesting the contradictory nature of the artist’s life. This is where the vignettes come in handy. Because the man was difficult to define, the film’s deliberate construction in Leigh’s hands seems apropos. But Leigh, partly by way of Gary Yershon’s layered score, does carry many things from scene to scene – chief among them Turner’s longing for honest human connection.
If this were a silent film, I’d still love it just as much. That’s not to say that Leigh’s dialogue is worthless, but Spall evokes everything this movie is trying to do without saying anything. ‘Mr. Turner’ wants to put us in the shoes of this cantankerous artistic genius, but not take us so far that we’re disturbed by what we find.