Last year was a big year for biopics. The rich 2014 crop of biography-on-film includes the beautifully written, acted and photographed “Mr. Turner.”
Writer-director Mike Leigh (“Secrets & Lies,” “Life is Sweet”) renders an intimate, intriguing account of J.M.W. Turner, the great British painter of nature, showing him as a fiercely dedicated artist and an all ’round rascal. Set during the final quarter century of the artist’s life, “Mr. Turner” is much aided by the hulking deportment, colorful extroversion and brooding introspection Timothy Spall exhibits as Turner.
The film’s 19th century mode of speech, too, is great fun, but some moviegoers may wish “Mr. Turner” had subtitles. The British accents can be thick, especially as spoken by the scowling, snorting, growling, grumbling Spall. Most ears, probably, will adapt.
In an especially competitive year for the best actor award, Spall didn’t get an Oscar nomination for “Mr. Turner.” Nevertheless, he’s ideally cast as Turner and his performance demands attention.
“Mr. Turner” fully enters the artist’s world, including his London home, which includes a studio and the private gallery in which Turner’s devoted father shows his son’s art to prospective patrons. In one of the film’s ensemble scenes, Turner and fellow members of the Royal Academy of Arts display their works in a group exhibition. Turner is a much-liked member of the academy, greeted with cheery affection and vice versa.
Later, during some quieter moments at the academy, the young Queen Victoria expresses her intense dislike of one of Turner’s masterpieces while the artist eavesdrops from an adjacent room. Being queen didn’t qualify her as a great art critic. The film also trails the artist into nature as he searches for inspiration. The director’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Dick Pope, captures epic imagery of the artist and his muse. Pope received one of the film’s four Oscar nominations. The other nominations were for costume design, production design and music.
In addition to Spall’s compelling portrayal of Turner, well-done supporting characters complete the picture. Paul Jesson co-stars as Turner’s father, William Turner Sr. The elder Turner, following retirement from barbering and wig-making in Covent Garden, works as his son’s assistant, buying and grinding paint and stretching canvases.
An example of the depth of Turner Jr. and Turner Sr.’s love for each another is seen following the artist’s return from an expedition to Flanders, Antwerp and Amsterdam. The grown men joyfully kiss and embrace.
Turner apparently treats most of the women in his personal life badly. These include Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), the devoted, neglected housekeeper who served him for more than 40 years.
Sophia Booth, Turner’s widowed landlady in seaside Margate, fares much better than poor Hannah. Late in his life, the artist falls in love with Booth. Finally, he finds happiness other than his art and his father. Scenes with Spall and Marion Bailey as Booth are a charming part of Leigh’s splendid portrait of the artist.