“Nothing comes from nothing, Madam”
I was not aware of J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) before hearing about Mike Leigh‘s latest film depicting the final quarter century of his life, Mr. Turner. I’ve tried recalling glimpses of his paintings during college, but find myself blank each time. As it appears he’s presently considered a master, perhaps we simply didn’t learn much about the British Romantics? It’s therefore surprising to discover in researching his early works how realistic each shipwreck and squall was in comparison to the later canvases of unbridled color seen in the film. Viewing these brings clarity to why the art world and public viewed him as a has-been losing his eyesight in the mid-1800s. He had forgone photographic representation in lieu of an almost Impressionistic take on light, abstracting his scenes in search of their greatest emotionally visceral resonance.
They didn’t all mock him in stage-plays or behind his back in galleries. Some appreciated his evolution a great deal. It’s especially relevant to see this change in style occurring around the time the daguerreotype was invented, for all intents and purposes killing portraiture and threatening the medium as a whole. This was the era of Post Modernism’s birth—a conscious effort on behalf of artists to carve a new path for their craft in order to combat photography’s invasion. And if Leigh’s film is any indication, Turner was at the forefront of this movement in his embracing technology and science. Listening to his keen observations with scientist Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) as she magnetizes metal with a single color extracted from white light via a prism astutely proves it so.
There is no fanfare or blows to the head in moments such as this, though. Leigh instead ensures that his biography remains as understated as his subject eccentric. We’re merely made to watch as time passes and events occur—tragic, joyous, and the mundanely inspiring in between. The filmmaker gives us no titles or dates as years go by; he’d rather portray a gloriously kinetic moment before a show at the Royal Academy of Arts where all hail Turner’s genius and transition to a carousel of naysayers and critics mimicking the fickle tastes of those in control of the art world’s current “fashion”. No matter the pain we see this shift in affection yield, he is unwavering in his vision. If the royal family dislikes their commission, so be it. Their loss is another’s gain.
His staunch view didn’t isolate itself in the art either. His ability to grunt through hurt feelings amongst his peers was as crucial in his private life. Besides his father (Paul Jesson‘s William Turner), J.M.W. kept those in his periphery as far as possible. His supposed daughters and their mother (Ruth Sheen‘s Sarah Danby) were all but cast aside without a public mention of their existence. His family’s housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) was constantly taken for granted, her affection for him used when it suited his carnal desires but never to satisfy her love. And even the woman he would later marry in secret (Marion Bailey‘s Sophia Booth) was quarantined in a second home with him taking her name for privacy’s sake. His soul’s torment was his alone; the paintings are what he gave the world.
A masterfully built film with Oscar-nominated cinematography by Dick Pope and glorious period specific production design (Suzie Davies and Charlotte Watts) and wardrobe (Jacqueline Durran), Leigh transports us to an England of old. What makes Turner such an intriguing subject with which to do so is his effortless shifting from aristocracy to anonymity, living beyond class to see what nature had to offer unencumbered by custom. He’ll sit and endure carefully manufactured, loquacious conversations that go nowhere by patrons of wealth in one scene—rolling his eyes with Spall’s oft-talked about gruff groans—and share a beautifully exhilarating moment of discovery with a genuine smile opposite his father and Somerville the next. So introverted and introspective, it’s only through these personal moments of feeling that we understand his frustrations beyond them.
At some point in its two-and-a-half hour runtime, I noticed how Mr. Turner became less about its titular figure and more about the era. While the painter’s oeuvre obviously plays a pivotal role in his vocation’s metamorphosis, we learn more about what that change looked like in the moment than its impact on him. There are profound moments such as the struggle he had dealing with the loss of his father and the knowledge his failing health left him at odds with every self-imposed compartment he existed within besides that of Mrs. Booth, but Turner is above anything else our conduit for art’s regeneration. He himself remains ever stoic and off-putting, quick to mask charity with indifference and sorrow with a stiff upper lip. Forever closed off, his work ultimately expresses what his appearance cannot.
The role was therefore ripe for the picking and Spall makes sure not to squander the opportunity. His Cannes win as Best Actor never sprouted into the Oscar, Golden Globe, or BAFTA nomination so many believed he was destined for, but that does nothing to diminish his success. He finds a way to make Turner endearing despite his flaws pushing so many people away, making us laugh in his interactions with fellow painters and cry when his defenses become no match for the emotional pain confronting him. A wild man brimming with passion he’s almost too embarrassed to express, he speaks through his brush to anyone willing to listen. Ahead of his time, his contemporaries would probably be shocked to learn his abstractions became more important than the marine landscapes that gave him fame.
 Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner
 Left to right: Ruth Sheen as Sarah Danby, Paul Jesson as William Turner, Dorothy Atkinson as Hannah Danby, Amy Dawson as Georgiana and Sandy Foster as Evelina
 Left to right: Tom Edden as CR Leslie, Jamie Thomas King as David Roberts, and Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner
Photos by Simon Mein, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics