By Laurie Coker
Timothy Spall finds his niche in Mr. Turner a strangely mesmerizing, meandering movie about a lonely man, who moves lethargically through an extraordinary life – the life of British artist Joseph Turner, whose art is as significant and fascinating as the man. Director Mike Leigh and Spall manage pull us into a world of artistry and beauty that delves deeply into the man, his art and his passion.
Spall plays J.M.W. Turner, the English romantic painter best known for his captivating landscapes and for moving his work toward the abstract in a time when there was no such thing. Spall, normally a character actor and best known as Pettigrew, aka Wormtail, from the Harry Potter films, becomes Turner, literally disappearing into the role of a man who seems an unlikely artist. Spall’s Turner is both brazen and sensitive; he loves deeply and paints passionately. He is boorish and sometimes painfully disconnected and seemingly unfeeling. But he does feel, passionately for his art and for his landlady Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey) — under a fake name – with whom he forms a bond and eventually lives with, in her seaside home where he dies. They never marry because Turner had a wife and two daughters who he barely acknowledged. Ironically, Turner, ugly, grumpy, condescending, and treats his father, who he notably loves, more like a servant than a patriarch. His death changes Turner and his art – darker times.
Mr. Turner will not appeal to everyone. It ambles unhurriedly (2.5 hours run time), but exquisitely, demonstrating Leigh’s artistry and keen eye for intimate details. The camera creeps in and follows Turner, capturing emotion, poetic imagery and adoration – for the art, the man and his intriguing life. Leigh doesn’t concern himself with his audience at all – no, he paints his own work of art – gorgeous and all consuming. Turner is an artist, but he is at times wholly callous, brutally honest and still, desirous of love. Spall is all of these, melding into the role and vanishing – losing the entire actor – to become all of the artist. It’s an award-worthy performance. This pairing, (not the first) of Leigh of Turner, works exceptionally well. Leigh’s tale includes love, conflict, broken hearts and vivid, interesting, colorful characters, and yet, its pace will daunt some.
Spall deserves far more recognition for this role, as does Leigh for his vision. Unfortunately, wide audiences might not see what I did or others who admire art in many forms. Leigh, with the help of cinematographer Dick Pope respectfully portray Turner the man – warts and all – placing him in his life’s backdrop of intense imagery – wondrous and stunning. I am placing an A in my grade book.