Mike Leigh, cinematic celebrator of the British working classes, delivers his second sumptuous period biography in “Mr. Turner,” a lovely, lively and languorous biopic that’s almost as painterly as its subject.
From the 19th century Dutch women who chuckle past Turner as he sketches a windmill, to the immaculately composed harbor scenes, shorelines and storms at sea, Leigh alters his game and unleashes his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Dick Pope, on a color palette that would do the English master proud.
Another member of Leigh’s repertory company, the wonderful character actor Timothy Spall, delivers a tour de force turn in the title role. Joseph Mallord William Turner, a mid-19th century master of light whose swirling, tempest-tossed seascapes prefigured Impressionism, vividly comes to life in two and a half hours of carefully conceived quick strokes. Spall’s Turner is a Churchillian lip-jutting grump who intersperses his sometimes pretentious pronouncements with every manner of throat clearing, guttural sob or groan of pleasure.
At an exhibition, he appreciates a Flemish painting with a grunt and a smirk to his fellow artists, who envied him and hung on his every word.
“Uncommonly capacious rump on the cherub” is his review.
He croaks a tune to impress a noblewoman accompanying him on the pianoforte, hires prostitutes to pose for him (among other services), and is under no illusions about his own appeal.
“When I peruse myself in a looking glass,” he admits, “I perceive a gargoyle.”
Turner was an eccentric, controversial figure in Victorian Britain — lauded and lampooned, deified and later dismissed. The portrait Leigh, Spall and Pope paint of him is of a working-class workaholic who sometimes relished his fame but often hid from it, slipping off to the Continent or down to the coast for sketching expeditions, traveling under his middle name (Mallord) to avoid scrutiny. He fathered children out of wedlock, exorcised his lust on his adoring maid (Dorothy Atkinson), and kept a secret lover in his later years.
We’re treated to a chance meeting that might have inspired his famous “Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On),” and are on the water with Turner as he sees a famous sailing warship towed, by steamboat, to its death, which became “The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken up.”
Leigh creates a vast and lively London arts scene of Royal Academy exhibitions in which Turner mixes freely and grandly with his contemporaries — theatrically playing mind games with such lesser lights as Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage) and John Constable (James Fleet). Rich swells shop for Turner’s paintings, escorted in and solicitously served by Turner’s simple barber father (Paul Jesson), shown stretching canvases and grinding pigments in service to his son’s talent.
Leigh — best known for films like “Happy-Go-Lucky” and “Vera Drake” and not for his similarly thorough Gilbert and Sullivan biography, “Topsy-Turvy” — makes little effort to trim this stately portrait into a tighter film, more on the order of the recent painter bio-films “Seraphine” and “Renoir.” The stunning outdoor compositions and pithy, revealing interpersonal reactions are padded with scenes that don’t do enough to advance to the story to merit inclusion.
Still, we get a nice arc of Turner’s career, from his peak, just before Victoria took the throne, to his later, more controversial and neo-Impressionistic work, dismissed by a snooty Victoria and Albert (Sinead Matthews and Tom Wlaschiha) as a product of his “failing eyesight.”
And as long as it is, it would be a pity to cut one moment of Spall’s immersive, utterly convincing portrait of this common man with an uncommon gift.