British painter J. M. W. Turner was a complex character. One art critic described him as an artist who could most "stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature." In his new film, Mr. Turner, veteran British director and writer Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Topsy-Turvy) captures the extent to which Turner would spend time studying landscapes and oceans in order to properly capture them in his paintings.
Anchored by a terrific performance by Timothy Spall, who portrays Turner as a curmudgeon who was a bit of a loner, the biopic, which opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, is a fascinating period piece. The costumes and attention to detail certainly distinguish it, even if its lack of a plot is likely to limit its audience to the kind of crowd that watches PBS and visits art museums on a regular basis.
While plenty of the film focuses on Turner's work and his relationship with the Royal Academy of Arts, an exclusive group of artists to which he has incredible loyalty, it also delves into his personal life, showing the ferocity with which he denies being the father of his two children. The film also hints at the sexual relationship he had with his housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), who worked for him for 40 years.
As we see in the movie, Turner's daily life consists of devoting most of his time to his work. He spends countless hours working on his sketches and drawings and then turning them into paintings. When his father William (Paul Jesson), an ardent supporter who helps give him the privacy he demands, dies, Turner finds himself utterly alone until he meets Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), an innkeeper who becomes his lover after her husband dies. She provides him with the kind of nurturing that he seems to crave, even though he's so introverted, he never really talks about his emotional needs.
Constantly grunting and hissing, Spall plays Turner as a real grump. But he also shows that the man was extremely committed to his artwork, even if it wasn't properly appreciated at the time. And his relationship with Sophia, a sweet old lady who sticks by his side until his death, suggests he wasn't a total misanthrope either. Give Spall credit for providing such a balanced, nuanced portrayal and give Leigh credit for bringing such a potentially sterile subject matter to life.