The latest work from the great British director Mike Leigh ("Topsy-Turvy"), "Mr. Turner" focuses on the life of another masterful British artist: early 19th century Romantic landscape painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall). Leigh's film runs counter to the other Great Man biopics that flooded this year's Oscar season by taking a warts-and-all approach, which frequently makes the film as prickly and difficult to like as its dyspeptic protagonist. Leigh gets a lot of mileage out of contrasting Turner's frequently boorish, insensitive behavior with the natural beauty of the paintings he produces, but the outstanding performances and lush photography ensure that the underlying unpleasantness never completely overwhelms things.
Mostly plotless, the film follows the artist from middle age, when he was already an established artist whose works delighted the public, to his final days. Throughout, Turner travels around England capturing on canvas the most sublime landscapes he encounters. The shapelessly constructed "Mr. Turner" differentiates itself from tidier biopics like "The Imitation Game," which feel the need to find a direct correlation between past incidents and its subject's current achievements. That makes for neat thematic symmetry but has the effect of dramatically oversimplifying a life.
Spall is a talented, versatile performer, though he's made a career out of playing a parade of sniveling, odious characters. His performance stands out in his filmography through the complexity and shading he brings to the role. Turner has a certain piggishness to him (both in features and in personality), and he's spectacularly inarticulate; he grunts and snorts nearly as much as he talks, as though he can't be bothered to muster up the energy to speak fully formed words to people he finds himself obligated to converse with. Spall makes the grotesquery compelling, and he's able to wring a wealth of meaning out of the various tones of these guttural utterances.
Leigh makes it plain that Turner is a man of great vision, a so-called "painter of light," but when dealing with other people, he's woefully inept and callous. He's neglectful of his family, even as he's doted on by his elderly father (Paul Jesson), whom Turner employs as studio assistant, and his somewhat simple-minded housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), who carries an unrequited love for him despite his predilection toward taking sexual advantage of her. He's scolded by his ex-lover, Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), when she stops by, and never publicly acknowledges the two daughters the couple share.
Seemingly detesting both high-minded intellectuals and low-class philistines in equal measure, Turner makes his all-encompassing disdain evident in scenes in which he's dismissive even of the fawning critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire). Consistently, his behavior hints as to why people don't often appear much in Turner's works. He seems fully engaged only during a brief visit from Scottish polymath Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville), who arrives at his home to offer a demonstration of the magnetic properties of violet. Turner himself feels he's a "gargoyle," though he softens slightly as he pursues a romance with the good-natured Mrs. Booth (a delightful Marion Bailey), who rents him a room during his visits to the seaside town of Margate. Their relationship brings out a sensitivity in him that we don't witness in any other aspect of his life.
"Mr. Turner" is filled with golden-hued, painterly compositions from cinematographer Dick Pope, whose Oscar-nominated work utilizes light and shadow to bring life to the lushly photographed landscapes, often making it hard to tell if you're looking at one of Turner's paintings of "boats in the fiery firmament," or the real thing.
Depicting the painter's late-career shift away from Romanticism and toward woozy Impressionism, the film implies that the switch was Turner's nonconformist response to finding his place in a changing world, as the introduction of the daguerreotype increased the artistic value of photorealism. Nevertheless, Turner still demonstrates a consideration for his legacy, as in a fascinating scene in which he's offered (and refuses) an obscene amount of money for the purchase of his life's work, instead wishing his works to remain accessible to anyone who wishes to view them. Cumulatively, these disconnected scenes meld together to form a complicated portrait of the man within whom the grotesque coexisted and blended together with the magnificent, creating a portrait as impressionistic as one of its subject's celebrated seascapes.