Timothy Spall grunts, snarls, and snorts magnificently in Mike Leigh’s new film, in which he plays the irascible J. W. M. Turner, arguably Britain’s greatest painter. The film runs on the tension between Turner’s gracelessness as a person and the beauty of his paintings. As portrayed by Spall, the man is a lumbering, ill-tempered but not entirely heartless grouch; he likens himself to a gargoyle, though he rather resembles a George Cruikshank illustration, or Charles Laughton’s Hunchback of Notre Dame—a gentle monster. Leigh’s method is to repeatedly pull the rug out from under our feet, undercutting a moment of nastiness with one of benevolence (Turner decides to forgive a debt owed to him by a down-on-his-luck Benjamin Haydon), or vice versa (his affection for his second wife is made to contrast with the coldness with which he treats his devoted housekeeper).
In other words, Mr. Turner is hardly a hagiography: as one expects in a Mike Leigh film, the characters are richly drawn and frequently unlikable. They’re also impeccably acted by Leigh’s troupe of recurring players. Ruth Sheen appears as Turner’s first wife, who remains perpetually outraged that Turner refuses to recognize their two daughters as his own; Martin Savage plays Haydon, Turner’s unsuccessful and embittered colleague; and, in a plum, breezy turn, Lesley Manville shows up as a Scottish naturalist who consults with Turner about the science of color and light. Sheen, Savage, and Manville appeared in Leigh’s last feature film, Another Year, and Sheen, Manville, and Spall are all veterans of Leigh’s previous foray into Victoriana, Topsy-Turvy (as is Dorothy Atkinson, who here plays that long-suffering housekeeper). Like Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Turner is pleasantly stuffed with information, as Turner’s life and work are situated within a dense, exquisitely wrought nineteenth-century world. That Leigh is often less interested in making points about that world than he is immersing us (and his actors) in it is to his credit as an artist.
But even as there is much to love about the film, it still can’t avoid falling into the traps of the artist biography, and its structure is disappointingly familiar. (It’s even got a scene in which Turner’s detractors cluck their tongues in front of one of his paintings and say things like “An outrage!”) Topsy-Turvy avoided the problem by organizing itself around the making of The Mikado rather than on Gilbert and Sullivan’s lives; it told a story about people in relation to a specific event, and limited its span to some sixteen months. Mr. Turner takes place over the course of some twenty years and comes to feel episodic. We don’t feel as if we get to know these people in the way that we get to know the characters in Topsy-Turvy or Another Year or Naked or Secrets and Lies, in part because the scenes are shorter than usual for Leigh. We’re always cutting away to something else, and we’re not able to luxuriate in the performances or the writing as deeply as in other Leigh films. What’s on screen at any given moment is most often riveting, and Dick Pope’s cinematography is so gorgeous that it alone would make Mr. Turner worth seeing. The film’s individual moments don’t always add up to a satisfying whole, though. The biopic remains a problematic genre that not even a master filmmaker like Leigh has been canny enough to solve.