Timothy Spall would never be given an American movie to carry on his rounded shoulders, let alone a 21/2-hour biography of a 19th-century landscape painter.
With his squinty eyes, crooked teeth, receding chin and limp hair, he sometimes resembles a lab animal suspiciously eyeing an unfamiliar maze. (Indeed, he played Peter Pettigrew – aka Wormtail – in the Harry Potter movies.)
Yet he makes a powerful impression in “Mr. Turner,” writer-director Mike Leigh’s dark portrait of an artist known as “the painter of light.” The picture and the title character slowly grow on us, until they’re indelible.
We meet Turner in roughly his late 40s, about 1825, and leave him at his death. (He lived from 1775 to 1851, though Leigh keeps us in doubt about the passage of time.) He has one friend, a doting father nearing his own end (Paul Jessup), and one silent admirer, their deformed housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson). She responds to Turner’s fumbled sexual gropings with wordless pleasure, and Atkinson conveys a wealth of information through expressive eyes and a few words.
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Turner seems to enjoy the company of other painters, extraordinary views of natural or man-made spectacles, and little else. He mellows slightly when he meets a kindly woman running a Margate boarding house (endearing Marion Bailey) but remains crusty toward everyone else. He remains politely blunt at best, cruelly crusty at worst and sometimes both at once: He turns away an impoverished, bitter fellow painter (Martin Savage) with “Sir, I beseech you, brook your ire!”
Leigh wisely avoids one problem that often sinks pictures about artists: He doesn’t try to explain Turner’s motivation or, except in brief instances, his process. Turner’s great oils and watercolors, which were off-putting to more literal artists and buyers of his day, seem indistinct at first but consist of a wealth of details that eventually merge into a clear picture. Leigh’s movie does the same, building a full portrait from a series of vignettes.
Turner tamps down emotions, but he does show them. When recently crowned Queen Victoria dismisses his work as a sickly mess, the concealed Turner winces in humiliation. He allows himself a broad smile when the Margate landlady suggests they present themselves to the world – though living in separate houses – as husband and wife. His grunts and growls, which Spall seems to utter almost unconsciously, occasionally resolve into humor: When a doctor tells the aged Turner he’s soon to die, the painter suggests he go downstairs for a libation, relax, then come back with a revised opinion.
Spall and Leigh have worked together on five features, and they’re perfectly in sync. Spall’s co-stars from Leigh’s underrated “All or Nothing,” Lesley Manville and Ruth Sheen, have small roles here as a scientist and the unmarried mother of Turner’s two daughters. Jessop, who’s delightful as Turner’s dad, also acted in that film.
Otherwise, Leigh has used mostly little-known British stage and TV actors, all well cast. Only the portrayal of painter-critic John Ruskin as a gushing, verbose fop presents a jarring note, though it may be accurate.
Relaxed editing and well-researched set and costumes give us a firm feeling of the period, and Dick Pope (who has worked with Leigh 10 times) excels. It’s a cliche to say a cinematographer does painterly work, but Pope suffuses the screen with light in the way Turner did his canvases. Certain movies must be seen in theaters to make their full effects, and this is one of them.
A deliberate, warts-and-all, engaging profile of J.M.W. Turner, the greatest British painter of the early 19th century.
A- STARS: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson.
WRITER-DIRECTOR: Mike Leigh.
RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes.
RATING: R (some sexual content).