This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001




British painter J. M. W. Turner (Timothy Spall) and his devoted housekeeper, Hanna Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), pause for a moment in Mike Leigh’s biopic

MR. TURNER (Mike Leigh, 2014)
Opened December 19

Timothy Spall was named Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his compelling portrayal of British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner in Mike Leigh’s lovely biopic, Mr. Turner. Spall, who played Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter series and has appeared in such other Leigh films as Topsy-Turvy, All or Nothing, Life Is Sweet, and Secrets & Lies, portrays Turner as a gruff, self-involved painter who grunts and growls his way through life. At his home studio he is assisted by his aging father, William (Paul Jesson), and his devoted housekeeper, Hanna Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), who he occasionally shags when in the mood. Turner carries his sketchbook wherever he goes, always on the look-out for a beautiful landscape or winter storm that could become the subject of his next painting. With that in mind, he rents a room in a small seaside inn run by Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), who eventually becomes more than just his landlady. An artist well ahead of his time, Turner becomes frustrated with the men at the Royal Academy of Arts and lisping art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), who don’t appreciate his work properly, especially when he starts heading toward abstraction.


J. M. W. Turner (Timothy Spall) is always on the look-out for a subject to paint in MR. TURNER

Leigh (Naked, Happy-Go-Lucky) does not paint the kindest portrait of J. M. W. Turner, who turned his back on his former mistress, the shrill Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), and their two daughters (Sandy Foster and Amy Dawson); doesn’t have the nicest things to say about such contemporaries as John Constable (James Fleet) and Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage); and refuses to listen to the stern warnings of his doctor (David Horovitch). Turner is an artist first and foremost; everything else takes a backseat in his life. Despite being based on actual events, the film was made in Leigh’s usual style, with the actors improvising within set scenes; Spall, who studied painting for two years in preparing for the role, takes full advantage of the opportunity, often refusing to articulate, grunting and growling as he deals with other people who dare share their thoughts and opinions with him. It’s a very funny conceit that helps define a rather unusual character. As befits a story about a masterful painter, cinematographer Dick Pope, who has shot most of Leigh’s films, beautifully photographs the sun rising and setting over vast landscapes, capturing its glowing light cast over the sea. Leigh keeps the narrative subtle, as when Turner and Sophia sit for a daguerreotype; almost nothing extraordinary happens in the scene, but from a few groaned questions and Spall’s expression, viewers can sense Turner realizing the changes that photography will bring to realist painting, spurring his controversial switch to more abstract canvases. It is not shown as a eureka moment but just another part of Turner’s development in becoming one of the most important and influential artists of the nineteenth century. And then there are the paintings themselves, glorious works that are always a joy to see, especially in a film that is a work of art itself.