Timothy Spall has long been regarded as one of the foremost talents in the British acting sphere, so it’s nice that he has another role to dig his teeth in to here, in indie darling Mike Leigh’s first feature film since 2010’s ‘Another Year’. Spall has really thrown himself in to becoming the titular Mr Turner, the famous English landscape painter of the 18th century who is known for his eccentric behaviour and taciturn nature, as well as his stunning paintings that changed the landscape of the art of his time. Equal parts loved and reviled, Turner was a controversial figure at the time, and Spall does a great job of capturing his taciturn nature and unusual mannerisms from the start with a performance full of grunts, grimaces and glowers that really light up the screen, either for comic effect or in a more serious tone, his laughter and moments of happiness making for a good counteraction, showing us more sides of a complicated man who is definitely not perfect, but forgets his troubles when he can pick up his paintbrush to work manically at his next landscape.
Spall’s vivid portrayal is the best thing about a film that meanders almost wistfully through different aspects of his life, from his relationship with his father to his loyal housekeeper, as played by Dorothy Atkinson, who he takes for granted and who loves him despite his often dismissive treatment. These interlinking relationships and the effect they have on both his personal and professional life are where the film shines, Spall leading the way, his body language and mannerisms making it clear what the conversation’s going to be like even before it’s happened.
The problem is that for all its artistic quality, ‘Mr Turner’ does quite manage to justify its gargantuan running time, its beautifully framed scenes of the English countryside perhaps taking a little too much away from what is already a bare plot, and while it is an interesting character study, Turner is never really explored in any depth, beyond the way he reacts to contemporaries in the art world. Spall’s scene-stealing performance and the turn by Dorothy Atkinson, who is nicely understated and whose dynamic with Turner is strongest are definitely a level above the others, whose purpose seems to be to provide fleeting moments of laughter that feel somewhat inconsequential.
There’s no doubting that ‘Mr. Turner’ is a beautifully made film, and Mike Leigh has been getting a lot of credit for that, but it’s Timothy Spall’s film and it’s ultimately his hard work that gets the film to stand on its own two feet. It’s not quite the masterpiece biopic that many have made it out to be, but it is a worthwhile study of the character of a very complicated and interesting man, even if it doesn’t always get everything right or quite feel satisfying enough to resonate really deeply.
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