Marking only his third period piece in 12 features (after 1999's Topsy-Turvy and 2004's Vera Drake), Mike Leigh's long-cherished project Mr Turner is a biopic of the British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, spanning roughly the last 25 years of the artist's life and beginning in 1826 with the 51-year-old JMW (Spall) already at the height of his fame.
Unfolding in a series of self-contained scenes in single settings, the film presents a portrait of the painter through a sequence of snapshots of his daily life. Devoted to his art, Turner lives with his beloved, ageing father (Jesson) and his house-keeper-with-benefits Hannah Danby (Atkinson), while disavowing all paternal responsibilities to his adult daughters by exasperated former mistress Sarah Danby (Sheen). After the death of his father, Turner begins a secret affair in Margate with widowed landlady Mrs Booth (Bailey, wonderful), using a false name. Leigh intersperses these scenes with insights into Turner's working life, whether it's painting with substances such as spit and egg, arguing with other artists at the Royal Academy of Arts (including a delightful moment of seemingly impromptu genius designed to wind up Constable), taking inspiration from his surroundings (landscapes, Stevenson's Rocket, steamships), or, more unusually, getting strapped to a ship's mast during a storm for a somewhat unconventional artistic perspective.
Spall is simply magnificent as Turner, coughing, spluttering and grunting throughout in a way that's somehow simultaneously both repulsive and yet strangely endearing. His perpetual gruffness is indicative of Turner's complete lack of social graces and yet his relationship with Mrs Booth is unexpectedly touching, while his true character is further illuminated by gestures such as refusing a small fortune for his paintings because he wishes them to be displayed to the public in the National Gallery, for free.
This is easily Leigh's most visually accomplished film, thanks to stunning cinematography from Dick Pope that captures the mood and feel of Turner's paintings without actually attempting to recreate specific works. The film also benefits from some extremely impressive production design that is rich in detail; the first glimpse of Stevenson's afore-mentioned Rocket, for example, is suitably awe-inspiring.
As with Leigh's Topsy-Turvy (a biopic of Gilbert & Sullivan, set during the writing of The Mikado), Mr Turner shows a genuine fascination with every stage of the artistic process. Indeed, in Turner's case, the urge to create is portrayed as something of a driving obsession, crystallised by the moment when he hauls himself off his deathbed in order to sketch the body of a dead woman found in the harbour. On a similar note, it isn't hard to see what drew the famously prickly Leigh to Turner as a subject, since they clearly share an artistic temperament.
Leigh's unconventional approach to plot and structure pays remarkable dividends, the cumulative effect being a richly layered, endlessly fascinating character study that is ultimately surprisingly moving. There are also a number of wonderful stand-alone moments (one particular highlight involves Turner getting his photo taken), while the gloriously unsexy sex scenes rival those of Abel Ferrara's Welcome to New York for attempting to elevate grunting to previously unconsidered erotic heights.
In short, this is Leigh's best film in over a decade, with the director at the very top of his game and a truly masterful performance from Timothy Spall. If this isn't a strong awards contender come BAFTA time, there is officially no justice. Highly recommended.