Timothy Spall is a busy character actor of considerable skill; unfortunately, playing the lead role in Mr. Turner requires more than he seems capable of delivering. He plays J. M. W. Turner with one note: phlegmatic, complete with actual phlegm. He may have won the Best Actor award at Cannes, but his Turner is a grunting, rutting grotesque whose inevitable death comes as a relief. Because he is in every scene, his character in many ways is the film, and his limited performance and freakish looks make watching it more like witnessing an accident than revealing a great artist.
There are wonderful scenes — the magnetism experiment using a prism with Scottish scientist Mary Somerville (a lovely turn by Lesley Manville), the scenes at the Royal Academy, and anything with Marion Bailey as Turner’s mistress, or Martin Savage as painter Benjamin Haydon. But they do not build or even cohere. At most they can be said to offer impressions of a prototypical Impressionist. But the sad fact is this: Mr. Turner is viscerally disgusting more often than not, and I don’t even refer to the maidservant (Dorothy Atkinson) and her progressive skin disease. Such medical conditions certainly reflect the reality in the 19th century. But director Mike Leigh indulges in repulsive images well beyond the needs of realism.
Indulgence is, indeed, a fault here. Mr. Turner is badly bloated at 150 minutes. Every scene is slow, and many drag on and on. To be sure, the land- and seascape photography by Dick Pope (a frequent Leigh collaborator) is beautiful, but the characters are, like Spall’s Turner, nearly all reduced to the grotesque. Humor is attempted occasionally, and achieved a few times. In at least one egregious case, however, the attempt is at a sophomoric sub-Python level: the insulting portrayal of the young John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) as a lisping, pompous coxcomb, the object of everyone’s ridicule and the possessor of no worthy opinions. Ruskin was famous for his sexual peculiarities, but his scholarly criticism was, and is, respected.
Finally, what was the point, the theme of this cinematic colonoscopy of Turner and his art? It wasn’t clear what connection director Leigh was trying to make between Mr. Turner’s phlegm and his paintings, except when Spall actually spit on his canvas to moisten the paints. Perhaps Turner, who describes himself as a “gargoyle,” inserted himself symbolically into his impressionistic landscapes, as the shipwreck, the belching train– as the ugliness that must be seen and accepted, even admired, as a part of nature. That would be a nice point to make, but Leigh didn’t make it, and I had to do a lot of interpreting to come up with it myself.