Just as writer/director Mike Leigh took a deliberately paced, extraordinarily detailed look at the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan in Topsy-Turvy back in 1999, so too does he here with the great 19th century English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner – "Billy" to his friends – played with aplomb by Leigh stalwart Timothy Spall.
The key difference is that Topsy-Turvy's focus was on the creation of G&S's landmark musical The Mikado, from initial inspiration to world premiere. So it did have a story, of sorts. Mr. Turner, in contrast, is more of a typical Leigh slice of life. Letting us hang out with Turner from approximately 1825 until his death, at 76, in 1851, the film is basically a document of his life and times.
Faithful to the artist's biography – which I read a bit into after seeing the film – Mr. Turner leaves us with the firm impression that its protagonist was by no means a tormented artist or even a difficult person. Yes, Spall does his fair share of grunting, but his Turner is also chatty and charming, with many friends, few enemies, and a surprising number of female admirers. His professional triumphs are underplayed, his personal tragedies no greater than any one else's. In short, he's a rather ordinary bloke, except with a heaping amount of talent and a bold approach to his later work that presaged Impressionism and thus altered the course of art history.
Mr. Turner is an incredibly beautiful film, and aficionados of period pictures have much to feast their eyes upon, from Dick Pope's lush cinematography (many of the crisp shots, framing Turner against sunsets and such, actually call to mind the work of Caspar David Friedrich, Turner's German contemporary and one of my own favorite painters, more than they resemble Turner's gauzy yellow skyscapes) to Jacqueline Durran's costumes to Suzie Davies' production design – all of which were rightfully Oscar nominated. If the goal of the film is to transport the viewer to 19th century England, then it succeeds, tremendously. (Gary Yershon's modernist, slightly atonal score – also Oscar nominated – provides a nice contrast.)
Aside from that, it's hard to tell who will really go for this relaxed, two and a half hour biopic, aside from those aforementioned period picture lovers, art history buffs, and Anglophiles. I could recognize certain real-life characters like architect Sir John Soane and art critic John Ruskin (hilariously played by Joshua McGuire), but a lot of other major characters and moments flew over my head. The film doesn't bend over backwards explaining why someone or something is relevant. If you can't keep up, too bad – just relax and enjoy the engaging performances and the gorgeous scenery.
Perhaps the least known aspect of Turner's biography was his complicated, and apparently sexual, relationship with his long-term cleaning lady Hannah Darby, played by Dorothy Atkinson as a sort of distaff Laurel to Spall's grumbling Hardy. With her pronounced stoop and worrisome psoriasis, I found my eyes frequently drifting over to her to see what she was up to in any given scene, no matter what else was going on. Atkinson's not trying to steal scenes; I believe it's Leigh's intention to keep her in the audience's mind throughout the film, even as Turner's own affections eventually turn to another woman. Because in the end, the film is sort of a surprise love story: Hannah Darby's unspoken – and unrequited – passion for her employer is what graces Mr. Turner with its final image, and its most heartbreaking moment.