Sunlight is arguably the unmitigated superstar of director Mike Leigh’s new film, Mr. Turner, a biopic of 19th-century British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. Renowned character actor Timothy Spall gives a stunning performance as the bullish, avuncular painter who never abandons his working-class roots, even as he ascends to the heights of the Royal Academy.
In the film’s opening moments, Turner steps out to the market, and on the teeming streets of London, we see little points of light touching certain objects––cabbage leaves, pigs’ heads hanging in a butcher’s windows. The cinematography by Dick Pope gives the impression of a nearly tactile realism that could stand on its own beauty, even without Spall’s charming turn as Turner.
Mr. Turner’s intense imagistic appeal is enhanced by quiet but powerful performances, not only by Spall, but also by a host of great female character actors such as Marion Bailey and Dorothy Atkinson. Leigh, a director known for his complex women, pays homage to Turner but does not try to make a heroic-man film. Instead, Leigh reveals Turner through his relationships with women, including a friendship with a self-taught female physicist who explains the scientific structure of light to Turner.
It is when Mr. Turner’s mix of meditative lighting, Leigh’s spare script and the performances coalesce that the most powerful moments happen. For example, the usually laconic Turner confesses his love to the middle-aged innkeeper, Mrs. Booth (Bailey), comparing her profile, framed in the seaside window with light cascading down, to a bust of Aphrodite. Or when pain flashes across Turner’s shadow-covered face as he overhears harsh critiques of his paintings in the halls of the Academy.
One of the reasons Mr.Turner is such a successful biopic is that it doesn’t stop at chronicling the annals of Turner’s life. The film captures the rhythms of the everyday as each day passes into history. Leigh’s decision to represent the latter half of Turner’s life allows him to capture the rapidly industrializing landscape of the early-19th century, transforming around the protagonist.
When Turner sits for a daguerreotype, slightly bemused, we experience the amazement of the portrait-sitter at being able to take his graven image home. Mr. Turner is long, clocking in at two and half hours, but it’s an immersive experience—one that merits every sun-drenched second.