What a pleasure it is to watch Mr. Turner, and experience the composition of so many powerful pictures of the English seaside and ships. Mike Leigh, the director of the movie, accompanies his artist subject as he looks and finds the place for his paint to become an indelible image. The sea, the land, the sky, all are given vigorous treatments, and at the beginning of the movie, in its very first scene, we witness a couple of Dutch milkmaids in traditional caps walk, from a distance in a verdant green field at sunrise, laughing and talking all the while, until they come quite close and then pass the point of view of the camera, where Mr. Turner, in his signature top hat, emerges from where he has been hidden from view, peering, looking deeply at what is sure to become a composition.
Documenting an artist’s process can be dull viewing. Not much happens. Of course there are the brush strokes, and the composition of the paint. What draws the viewer into the movie are the relationships that Turner had, beginning with his father, a sweet, supportive fellow in failing health, willing to do anything for his son. When a woman comes to call, claiming that her daughter has produced his grandchild, Turner denies that he has a child, and the scolding woman leaves him in disdain. She is clearly in need of money, money is an important part of the story.
Turner had a relationship with his servant also, who seemed to suffer from scrofula, a disease that was not uncommon, and was mentioned as killing two of Turner’s boyhood friends when he was in school at Margate. But his most lasting and deep relationship with a woman occurred in Margate on the sea where he rented a room with a view looking out to the boats. Mrs. Booth becomes his late life companion once she is widowed for the second time.
Besides the relationships with women, there are very important ones with his colleagues and competitors like Ruskin, Constable. Often, he spends time traveling to sites he wants to paint, sketching. Just when it feels that not much is happening, a photographer turns up, or there is an incident with a natural philosopher who discusses her theory of color and magnetism. Photography and railroads are interesting to Turner whose mind is engaged not just with technology but with ideas. The screenplay provides some marvelous things to ruminate on after the movie’s credits roll.
Timothy Spall speaks his dialogue with the uneducated accent of a lower class son of a barber, when he is not grunting or growling, or making other uncouth noises. At one point he spits into the canvas, and rubs it around.
A rich man offered to buy all of Turner’s work at once for a mighty sum which would have made him rich and secure for the rest of his life. But he turned the offer down, claiming that he intended to leave all of his work to the nation. He wanted the public to be able to see his complete body of work for free. Beautifully researched, the film tells the truth about this and other things.