“Mr. Turner” is the story of an artist who is moody and sees the world in a way that is different from the rest of us, and whose unconventional creations will long be celebrated.
I could be speaking about the film’s director, Mike Leigh (with whom I conducted one of the most difficult interviews of my career), the seven-time Oscar-nominated writer-director of films like “Secrets and Lies” and “Vera Drake.”
The description fit Leigh, but the artist that I am referencing is J.M.W. Turner, the 19th-century landscape painter and focus of Leigh’s biographical film, nominated for four Academy Awards at Sunday night’s ceremony.
Turner is a character that Leigh perhaps sees as a contemporary muse for his prickly disposition, but also his own unusual brand of artistry.
Leigh makes films that involve a great deal of rehearsal for getting right the “feel” of the film’s period and emotions, but with a screenplay that is flexible to the degree that it can be improvised on the go.
The director employs his signature style in combination with longtime collaborator Timothy Spall (“Life is Sweet,” “All or Nothing”) hired to play Turner as a colorful soul of varying moralities, personal tastes and family matters.
His Turner is all bundled up in era-specific layers of clothing, with a top hat crowning a puffy, reddened face that’s all scrunched up into a frown like that of a man about to spit something distasteful out of his mouth.
Which he literally does in touching up one of his paintings while it is already hanging in a gallery. Turner was a man who was famous during his lifetime, and such eccentricities were allowed.
It is both off-putting and amusingly fascinating to watch the portrayal of the past 20 years or so of Turner’s life, as a man who changed the perception of landscape artistry.
He did so to the degree that he remains one of the masters and is noted for those he influenced, as seen in the celebration by both Philbrook and Gilcrease museums with 1998’s collaboration between the two museums to show off the works of both Turner and Thomas Moran, whose own art was guided by that of Turner.
Although Spall is frequently a joy to monitor in his quirkiness and artistic inspiration, he is at the head of a large collection of characters who, in their ruddy depictions and utterly common, unchanging lives, never brought me into the film to the depth I desired.
But I was never bored by the devastating sunsets that inspired Turner to bring out his watercolors, and which are captured in a way that confirms why cinematographer Dick Pope received his second Academy Award nomination for the film.
When it comes to the Oscars, “Mr. Turner” was made to be both seen (it’s also nominated for production design and costume design and is stunning in both regards), and to be heard, in the case of its lush, nominated film score, more so than for its sluggish, overlong story.