Mike Leigh specializes in incisive social comedy-dramas (Naked; Secrets & Lies). But in Mr. Turner, his first period film since 1999’s Topsy-Turvy tackled Gilbert and Sullivan, Leigh examines the last 25 years in the life of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), a cantankerous, grunting bullfrog who also happened to be a brilliant artist, perhaps Britain’s finest ever. As played by Timothy Spall in a volcanic performance that won him prizes from critics in Cannes and New York, Turner relishes the contempt that ensues when he takes his acclaimed landscapes to the brink of impressionism. You can almost see Leigh behind the camera smiling in approval.
Turner was a wealthy man who lived simply in London with his retired “Daddy” (Paul Jesson) and a maid (Dorothy Atkinson) who lifted her skirt on command. As an artist, he’d strap himself to a ship’s mast in a storm to get the right perspective. As a father, he ignores his two daughters by Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen). Yet on a visit to Margate, a seaside town that inspired his paintings, he forms a tender relationship with the twice-widowed Sophia Booth (the marvelous Marion Bailey). Leigh embraces the contradictions in Turner. And in tandem with cinematographer Dick Pope, a master of light, he shows us the world as Turner sees it. The effect is harsh and ravishing. Leigh’s beauty of a movie touches the heart not by sentimental gush but by the amplitude of its art.