Leigh’s ability to join both his major interests, costume dramas and kitchen-sink family affairs, together is on full display here. One of the major elements which makes Mr. Turner such a thoughtfully composed film is the recreation of dramatic events which populated JMW Turner’s life. His reluctance to admit to 2 children which he bore via one of his several mistresses, his tumultuous and often emotionally violent relationship with his servant, his companionship to his father, and the up-and-down reputation he held as a great painter in the royal societies of England at the time are all living and breathing through a time-machine which Mike Leigh has created in this film. The communications between painters, royalty, scientists, photographers, and the advent of new art forms and scientific discoveries are giddy little points of detail for those history nerds. It’s an incredibly thoughtful film, with all of its background rich in historical research.
The film however, is a deliberately paced, very slow and methodical biopic which can be rather dry in its uncovering of the painter JMW Turner. Timothy Spall is fantastic in his role, and it’s the type of acting which doesn’t draw attention to itself from the performance and charisma of the actor, but rather allows the character as he was in real life to lead the way. Spall honestly should be a shoe-in nominee for Best Actor, but many times we’ve seen that the Oscars like performances that pop and chew scenery. Spall is purely natural as JMW Turner with his heavy gargle-y voice and coughs that indicate a chronic case of bronchitis, as well as the hilariously (and tragically) droll, pained humor with which he addresses his peers. Mike Leigh is able to instill both a beautiful and sinister atmosphere in this film, with its sunshine and beautiful marine landscapes juxtaposed with dark rocky mountains and a very creepy string solo in the background score.
Overall, Mr. Turner turns out to be a well composed, wonderfully acted film if a tad too dry in the narrative department. Like most of Leigh’s film, the uninitiated will find his approach to unveiling plot-points as dreadfully slow and have you looking at your watch multiple times throughout.