Mike Leigh’s masterful biopic of J.M.W. Turner, perhaps England’s finest painter, begins and ends with the sun. It opens carefully, with a light-drenched longueur of two Dutch women crossing a windmill against a stunning landscape. It ends, more or less, with the painter’s famous dying outburst: “The sun is God.”
What happens in the nearly three hours in between is unlike anything you’ve seen in a biographical film. Gone are the trappings of melodrama, the hyper-stylizations, the beautiful minds. Leigh’s Turner is a foul, earthy toad-man trapped in a paradoxically graceful yet clumsy body reminiscent of Charles Laughton or Michel Simon. And yet it’s a singular performance. Timothy Spall plays Turner with such deep restraint — with guttural grunts, moans, sloth-walking, the occasional uplifting smile — that all other “played with restraint” platitudes of recent Awards seasons are forgotten. His Turner is both larger than life and exactly the same size.
The beauty of Mr. Turner is put into relief by its superficial resemblance to The Theory of Everything, another British film about a genius held captive in an unlikely body. Only that film is inferior even to documentary treatment of the same story, namely Errol Morris’ A Brief History of Time. Mr. Turner, with its gorgeous, Turner-esque landscapes and profoundly subtle sense time, renders preceding documentaries on the subject insufficient. Whereas The Theory of Everything is not a theory, much less of everything, Mr. Turner is a exactly what it says it is.
The starkest difference between Mr. Turner and The Theory of Everything is the way it lights up the flaws of its protagonist. Turner never married, ignored his biological offspring and labored obsessively on his paintings and sketches, traveling widely, leaving for months at a time to be alone. Yet the film has no shortage of tender moments: an awkward scene, for example, where Turner begins to croak Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas while standing over a piano — a scene that is all the more affecting when you remember that Turner was not a refined aesthete or aristocrat but the son of a barber. And Turner’s poignant, supportive relationship with his father drives the film’s first third, somehow without smothering its momentum. When his father dies, Turner’s life begins to shift registers almost imperceptibly. But this is because life, in Mr. Turner, is something earned and lost, a lived thing, and not a series of punctuated events and traumatic fallouts.
Nor does the film pretend that the life of a great artist is the same as the life of everyone one else. Turner possessed a fleet, agile mind that could read sunlight like words. He was rapt by his fast-changing times, and the film shows him fascinated with the camera, a new technology he thought would replace his role in the universe. The beauty of the film, what makes it a classic, is the way Turner’s sensuality is both bottled and released by Spall’s performance.
And Timothy Spall’s performance should win him best actor, at least in a just world. In vintage Mike Leigh fashion, Spall was made to learn painting for two years prior to production. The effect of this work in the film is startling: it’s not so much that Spall reproduces Turner’s paintings before our eyes, it’s more that he is physically inseparable from the canvas.
Credit also must to go to Mike Leigh, who in 40 years has never made a bad film, and, on the contrary, has written and directed several classics — Bleak Moments, Naked, Topsy-Turvy. Mr. Turner is among his best. It never tries to become a painting, but it understands cinema as painting life with light.