|Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.|
Similar to many other great artists, Turner is far from being without fault. He's a grump who often neglects his aging and sickly father William (Paul Jesson) and doesn't exactly treat the women in his life much better. He refuses to see his ex-wife and children, misses a daughter's funeral and has a brief sexual liaison with his maid (Dorothy Atkinson), leading the poor woman to believe for years that there is something more to their relationship.
Of course, Turner was - on the other hand - a great artist, often thought to be England's best. His sweeping panoramas, dramatic scenes of shipwrecks and storms at sea and, much later, work that took on an experimental nature are beauties to behold. There seems to be much going on in the "spirit," shall we say, of Turner, even if the way he interacts with others doesn't much show it.
It's appropriate that Leigh should tackle this material, considering that the filmmaker is often thought to be the U.K.'s best filmmaker. His remarkable body of work includes "Life is Sweet," "Naked," "Secrets and Lies," "Topsy Turvy," "Vera Drake," "Happy Go Lucky" and "Another Year." And Spall, who gives one of the year's finest performances, has long been one of Leigh's finest collaborators.
Much ado has been recently made of the critic in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Birdman" and that film was thought to have taken a rather harsh stance on criticism. "Mr. Turner" not only has little love for the critics who did not understand the artist's later work, but for the general public as a whole.
In one scene, Turner and some friends must listen to a young prig prattle on about art and you can tell that Turner can barely hold his tongue. During a later sequence, Turner attends a theater production that eventually ends up poking fun at his late, experimental work. He storms out, clearly unimpressed with the public's lack of intellectual rigor.
Towards its end, Leigh's film also tackles the question of art's longevity and there's a scene of great weight during which Turner, upon finding out that he is gravely ill, asks a doctor, "so I'm to become a nonentity?" Several scenes prior to that, Turner has turned down an offer for his entire collection in exchange for a large sum of money. He refuses on the grounds that he wants his work remembered and hung in a gallery for all of England to see. But that later scene obviously touches on the fact that once we're gone, we'll never know how or if we'll be remembered.
"Mr. Turner" is one of the year's best and it's likely the most visually beautiful film in Leigh's career. The acting is terrific across the board and despite the film being a bit austere, it's funny in the way that Leigh's pictures tend to often be - funny asides or quips make us laugh, but they also point to essential truths. Here is a movie about an artist that is itself a work of art.