NYFF52 in the Rearview: Mr. Turner (2014)

Mike Leigh’s latest feature, Mr. Turner is a wonderfully evocative biopic about the life of English painter J.M.W Turner (1775-1851), played by Timothy Spall (Cannes Film Festival Award winner, Best Actor).

Many art enthusiasts may know the name not only for the work the landscape artist produced but, also for the prestigious prize that bears his name.

As per the director’s statement:

[Mr. Turner] is about the tensions and contrasts between this very mortal man and his timeless work, between his fragility and his strength. It is also an attempt to evoke the dramatic changes in his world over the last quarter century of his life.


Although we enter his life story past the midway point (punctuated by the death of his father), we see his art transforming before our very eyes. A closer examination of his work (which the film refers to) shows that as the years progressed, his work got more and more abstract, reflecting his own emotional turmoil and internal conflict. And be sure, there was a lot to have caused Turner to look inward and be troubled. Aside from the acute sadness he experiences upon the passing of a most beloved father, there were a host of romantic entanglements:

  • the love of his housemaid, which he did not return, but instead exploited to his own personal satisfaction,
  • the strained relationship between himself and a former partner (and their two illegitimate children),
  • and the secret, common law relationship at the end of his life with a woman with whom he would live out his days in the London district of Chelsea.

Leigh ‘paints’ this phase of Turner’s life by showing the people, places and events that influenced his work. There must be a great freedom in being about to do this when you have a stable of actors with whom one frequently collaborates. For star Spall, this is his fifth Mike Leigh feature. The rest of the principle cast including Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesly Manville, have also all worked with him in a variety of productions for television, film and the stage.

So effective was the way this film is constructed and presented, that my screening guest had not realized until our post-screening chat, that the film is based on an actual person. I point this out because I see it as a great credit to the work. Where many biopics are clearly telegraphed as such, in Mr, Turner you still retain some of that linearity, but in addition you are treated to a story that has an artistic and dramatic flare, more often associated with straight narrative features.

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