Survey countless films about artistic geniuses and you will not encounter one quite like Mike Leigh’s J.M.W. Turner, as played by Timothy Spall.
Grunting is practically his choice mode of expression. He spits on his canvases and grubbily wields his brushes — and he’s not much more elegant in his female relationships or when trying to carry a tune. He squints like a mole to such a degree that you feel at any moment he could twitch his nose and burrow a hole into the ground.
He’s not a man from whom sublimity would seem to emanate, and yet it does. Joseph Mallor William Turner (1775-1851) churned out some of the most powerfully visceral paintings of light and tumult, of stormy seascapes and Victorian smokestacks. But between Turner the man and Turner the artist, the distance is as vast as the ocean.
And that is much of the point of the spectacular “Mr. Turner.” Its mission isn’t to place Turner on a pretentious pedestal of genius, where so many of our depictions of brilliant talents reside, but to treat him as a craftsman, a laborer going about, as Leigh has said, “a job of work.”
“Mr. Turner,” which concentrates on Turner’s last few decades, is punctuated, courtesy of cinematographer Dick Pope, by beautiful landscapes that often vividly recreate Turner’s own compositions. But they aren’t showy and instead crop up in Turner’s days as he, pointing an umbrella with each pace, strides the English seaside — moments of awe after which “Mr. Turner,” a sturdy film as equally sure of itself as its subject, gets back to work.
Leigh follows Turner back and forth between his home in London and his sojourns to the coast (mostly Margate in the southeast of England), and between work and the largely unwelcome intrusions of family, society and business. When his estranged mistress (Ruth Sheen) barges in with one of their daughters and a new granddaughter, Turner grumbles, “Most preoccupied.”
His cohabitants are more accommodating to his enigmatic obsessions. There’s Turner’s father (the tremendous Paul Jesson), a kindly, hunched former barber who mixes his paints and shows his works to buyers; and his longtime housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), whom Turner occasionally gropes, to her pleasure.
The father-son relationship is as tender as any, without even a brush stroke of sentimentality. They’re of a piece, both stout wheezers. “My little lad,” says the father as he expires. There’s sweetness, too, in the romance that subtly develops between Turner and his Margate landlady, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), who became Turner’s last mistress. Turner’s appetites are great. In one scene — an old tale about the artist — he straps himself to the mast of a ship to experience a gale up close.
The business of work also fills Turner’s days. From a peephole, he grimaces at customers who visit his studio. At the Royal Academy, he contentedly and competitively parades among fellow artists, perusing their works: “‘Tis a splendid cornucopia,” he judges, an apt description of “Mr. Turner” as well.
Leigh has an obvious fondness for the period detail. Most memorable are Turner’s encounters with the Victorian art critic John Ruskin. Joshua McGuire plays him as a lisping, intellectual fop, a historical inaccuracy but no matter. He’s a perfectly conceived opposite to Turner, whose high-minded salon conversation the artist responds to with unhappy grunts and coarse jokes.
“Mr. Turner” has long been a passion for Leigh, who typically discovers his films through improvisation and rehearsal. Here he’s on a more direct line, and there’s no doubt it’s his masterpiece.
Clearly, it wouldn’t work without a tremendous performance from Spall, a fine character actor finally given the stage. Spall’s Turner is an enigma: a brutish, primal force capable of glory. “Mr. Turner,” thankfully, never seeks to resolve the discord (evoked by Gary Yershon’s atonal score). Instead, “Mr. Turner” is a maelstrom of life and art.
“Mr. Turner,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some sexual content.” Running time: 144 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP