Timothy Spall gives a star turn in ‘Mr. Turner’

A deeply human portrait.

The 19th century artist J.M.W. Turner is beloved for his evocative landscapes, with their swirling blends of color and light.

Mike Leigh, a great film artist, has carved out a distinct career as a master of naturalism, a singular devotee to chronicling humanity as it really is, not as we imagine it to be.

So it stands to reason that a Leigh biography of Turner would investigate the man behind the art, presenting him with his deep flaws and all, in no uncertain terms.

“Mr. Turner,” featuring a monumental performance by Timothy Spall as Turner and chronicling the final years of the painter’s life, depicts him as wracked by that peculiar combination of hubris and powerful guilt that so often characterizes those who achieve greatness at the expense of their personal lives.

Spall finds the vulnerability in this gruff man, who has refused to claim his daughters, routinely takes advantage of his housekeeper and speaks with a guttural drawl that often means grunting instead of conversing. There’s an extraordinary sensitivity behind the performance, a sadness that emerges in fits and starts but grows increasingly pronounced as Turner ages and comes to experience the ravages of time.

The film looks and feels like a Turner painting, thanks to Leigh’s collaboration with cinematographer Dick Pope, capturing the immense beauty that so transfixed this man who was at once extraordinary and quite ordinary, but most of all deeply human.

Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson
Rated R

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