Mr. Turner is an obscure and stunning painting of a legendary artist J.M.W Turner rendered by another legendary artist, British director Mike Leigh. One used the medium of paints and the other uses the medium of film. The most striking image in the film is of Turner seated still in his boat, heartbroken after the death of his father, surrounded by the gorgeous nature around him bathed in golden rays of sunlight piercing through the flora. He seems dwarfed by his surroundings and this immediately brings to mind a previous scene in the film, that of his father showing a woman a painting done by Turner. The woman is told that there is an elephant in it somewhere but she has difficulty finding it. His father then slowly points to an area in the foreground of the painting, where we see an elephant that seems almost invisible and dwarfed by the imposing nature around it. Perhaps, Leigh is presenting us here with an analogy.
I sat down to watch this film expecting it to be another textbook biopic but I was pleasantly surprised. Rather than following a conventional pattern that spells out everything for the audience and telling them which point is A and which point is B, Leigh acts like an exhibitor showing us a particular painting and asking us to view it at our own leisure and make our own interpretations, just as how Turner asks some of his visitors to do. This is someone with a very odd and complex personality. He was very attached to his father and seems to be in a jolly mood every time he is around him. His mother is described as a lunatic who made his and his father’s lives hell and as a result, was sent to an asylum. Turner is taken care of his loyal housekeeper Hannah Danby (splendidly acted by Dorothy Atkinson), who constantly seeks his attention but he needs her only to satisfy his sexual urge. We learn that Turner was involved in a relationship with another woman at one point, one that produced two daughters.
Turner pretends as if they do not exist and displays an utter disregard for their feelings. Why, we don’t know. During one of his long trips, Turner chances upon a woman named Sophia Booth, who owns a house that Turner occasionally stays at for the purpose of taking his sketches. She is a two-time widower and after her third husband’s demise, Turner becomes romantically involved with her. Even though she is an ordinary-looking woman, he sees something special in her and likens her to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. He seems to possess the unique gift of seeing beauty in the most mundane and ordinary things and displays this on more than one occasion. Despite his indifferent attitude towards some people, he is shown as someone who is capable of expressing his emotions. This happens during his father’s death, then when he is informed that his daughter has passed away and also once while drawing a sketch of a prostitute at a brothel.
This is not one of those biopics that has “Oscar bait” written all over it. This is a richly detailed and well-researched film characterized by Leigh’s usual methodical precision and care. Leigh was very careful here not to infuse his script with the heavy dose of melodrama and sentimentality that usually accompanies biopics like these. Most of his films seem to feature the same kind of people, with the exception of one or two. The men are affected by emotional and physical troubles and the women are neglected and made to undergo a painful and lonely existence courtesy of these men. Leigh has tried to replicate the look of Turner’s paintings for the film and the result is a truly a wondrous sight to behold. Leigh takes good advantage of Timothy Spall’s walrus-like face and expressions and the performance Spall has delivered here is thoroughly compelling and mesmerizing and one that should’ve been honored with the Best Actor Oscar instead of Eddie Redmayne’s in The Theory of Everything.