Mr. Turner is a quasi-biopic from thorny British director Mike Leigh. If you know Leigh’s stuff, you’ll know what I mean when I say this is a quasi-biopic. It’s certainly not a normal one. What it is . . . a great one. Timothy Spall, veteran character actor, gets the title role, British painter J.M.W. Turner, and it’s a role that Spall can sink his teeth into and he delivers a once in a lifetime performance. The Turner conjured by Spall & Leigh is a mass of contradictions; he’s charming and bellicose; he speaks of painting in lengthy, elevated prose and he communicates via only aggrieved grunts; he’s the consummate distinguished gentleman and a vile repulsive human being. Or maybe those last two words sum it up; Turner here is completely believable as a human being and the film is more interested in treating him as such than it is in treating him as a “historical figure” or a “great artist” as any other biopic might. The film has odd rhythms; scenes never play out the way you think they will and the film leaps from scene to scene in ways that are often confusing. And the score is odd, dissonant and striking, not at all the kind of score one expects from a British pastoral/drawing room drama. But Spall is simply doing some of the finest acting you’ll ever see, acting as purely without vanity as you’ll ever see. A visit to a brothel creates one of the most devastating performances that I think I’ll ever see. He’s ably supported by a cast of Leigh regulars and everyone is at the top of their game, giving utterly real, utterly naturalistic performances. Of special note: Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s long-suffering, ultimately tragic housekeeper; Paul Jesson as Turner’s exuberant father; Martin Savage as the bitter, unsuccessful painter Benjamin Haydon; and James Fleet as a pitch-perfect, if sadly underused, James Constable, Turner’s chief “rival” in the world of painting. It’s an odd movie, as I say, and one that will take a while for you to get acclimated to, but stick out those first fifteen or twenty minutes. What lies on the other side is a “biopic” like none I’ve ever seen – a work of surpassing beauty. And Spall’s Mr. Turner scowls and grunts dismissively at the very notion. 4 stars.
tl;dr – Timothy Spall’s once in a lifetime performance as landscape painter J.M.W. Turner anchors this innovative, strange and utterly transfixing film. 4 stars.