Painting with light

'Mr. Turner' revives an Old Master, his world and how he saw it

One Old Master deserves another. And so it is that one of the finest films of 2014 finds English filmmaker Mike Leigh taking as his subject English painter J.M.W. Turner. "Mr. Turner," like Leigh's equally sublime "Topsy-Turvy," revives an era in astonishing, delicate detail, then moves through the world with a documentarian's eye. Leigh takes Turner out of art history and puts him back in the world.

In his role as cultural historian, Leigh more commonly focuses on contemporary life in lower-middle-class English 'hoods ("Happy-Go-Lucky," "Secrets & Lies," "Naked," "Life is Sweet"), but his obvious fascination with and affection for his fellow artists (perhaps especially the grouchy ones) and their pains are evident. Though Leigh probably isn't quite as cantankerous as Turner, he's well qualified to see the 19th century artist for his faults as well as his genius, and to guide his cast through a well-honed process of improvisatory rehearsal to arrive at life's reflection caught on camera.

Leigh opens on a beautiful landscape with river and windmill, and soon enough, we see the man regarding it with a thoughtful scowl. This is what passes for peacefulness for Turner (Timothy Spall), who only seems truly happy in the merry company of his beloved father (Paul Jesson). A coarse, grunting grump, Turner nevertheless remains consistently, quietly and compulsively driven to paint his landscapes and his seascapes, and to perfect his form through thoughtful regard and restless experimentation.

"Mr. Turner" is as much about a way of viewing as it is about Turner himself, and it's fascinating to enjoy Leigh's entirely distinct viewpoint and technique in dialogue with his subject. Leigh is a dedicated, unblinking observer not of nature but of human nature, and he allows us to draw our own conclusions about what he shows us of Turner's topsy-turvy interactions with his world and his peers: his deep love of his father but his denial of his own illegitimate children, his sensitivity to nature and his brusqueness with people (including his sexual exploitation of women and lack of interest in marriage), his total dedication to art and his iconoclasm within the English art world, dominated by the standing-on-ceremony Royal Academy of Arts.

Leigh's narrative approach tends toward the episodic, with little interest in conventional "drama" and every interest in nuances of behavior and meaning, applied with gentle brushstrokes. Just as Turner had a penchant for moving incognito, Leigh wants to be a fly on the wall of history as he time-travels through Turner's last quarter-century of life, up to and a bit beyond his "famous last words." The collage of scenes accumulates Turner's character, from moments of great emotional impact to those of passing fancy, like Turner's fascinated encounter with a camera: wondrous new technology destined to evolve into the vehicle of "Mr. Turner" itself.

Turner has been oft described as "painting with light," terminology that's also applied to the art of cinematography. Accordingly, Leigh's right-hand man Dick Pope delivers the most stunning cinematic paintings of the year with "Mr. Turner," which seems likely to collect the Best Cinematography Oscar. Less likely to make it to the podium, but no less deserving, is Spall, a career character actor and Leigh vet who inhabits his character with a rare totality of presence and a depth that insists we love Turner, despite his many warts, for being so thoroughly, unapologetically himself; for being redeemed by love and vocation; for having, like Leigh and Spall, the soul of an artist.

Rated R for some sexual content. Two hours, 30 minutes.

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