For many Americans, Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner" will be their first introduction to J.M.W. Turner, a British painter whose Romantic-era landscapes look at first glance like the kind of fusty canvasses usually relegated to the quieter corners of museums. Leigh's film makes clear, however, that Turner was anything but a quiet figure.
"Mr. Turner" features Timothy Spall, best known as Peter Pettigrew in the "Harry Potter" films, as the complicated and contradictory painter. We first see Turner creating one of his gorgeous pictures in Antwerp, then returning to his London flat for a quick grope of his submissive maid, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson). He cares for his ailing father (Paul Jesson) but shuns his own illegitimate children. Turner is a pig at the table -- and in bed -- yet noble in other ways. He turned down wealthy private collectors to ensure that his works would be available to the public.
Spall's performance almost defies description. He can be highly physical -- in one scene, he weeps with such force that you may fear getting splashed -- but also subtle, especially given that Turner barely speaks. Somehow, the combination works. By the time Turner begins an unlikely relationship with Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), a humble woman beneath his station, we've come to know him so well that we see straight into his heart.
The reason Turner stands out among his peers is that his more adventurous paintings -- blurry, furious seascapes that made him a target of satire -- appear in hindsight to presage modern movements like Impressionism and abstract art. We see Turner pounding his canvasses and spitting on them; he has himself tied to a ship's mast so he can experience a storm. This is all presented not as madness but as method; at the day's end, Turner still enjoys his membership at the chummy Royal Academy.
Leigh's movie mirrors Turner's work: It's richly detailed and deceptively traditional-looking (Dick Pope's sublime cinematography earned an Oscar nomination) yet departs from convention. Any other biopic would simplify Turner as a misunderstood genius, but Leigh presents him as a man both ahead of his time and comfortably ensconced in it. It's an untidy portrait that feels very real.