Leigh gives us a portrait of Turner in miniature. A series of scenes, vignettes, fractured & fragmented; presented without context. These small close-up details of a life eventually collate; they create a broader picture when seen in totality. It works, at least intellectually; but the film doesn't live! Spall's grunting, snorting caricature of Turner is impenetrable; a blank canvas. More a sketch than a masterpiece.
Director Mike Leigh is interested in William Turner the Man and not in William Turner the Painter hence the title of this film. So we have a proletarian point of view here that may undoubtedly please a large part of the audience but not me I'm afraid. Not once in this movie Mike Leigh tried to explain or guess why William Turner was a genius. Already forgotten.
Extraordinary painter lives ordinary life. Leigh isn't interesting in the process of Turner painting (most movies that try to do this are bad at it anyway) so much as he is in the idea of framing Turner's work in Turner's life.
The early 19th century Britain, on the cusp of Victoria's reign, is captured gloriously by Leigh. Spall's eccentric characterisation of Turner is appropriate, his art which may have signalled the dawn of modernism is splendidly rendered, while his desire for a public rather than elitist audience for his art showcases his anarcho-socialist affectations. The narrative is incongruent but Leigh apologises to no-one.
Obviously if you are Mike Leigh and you go and make a heritage picture it had better be one hell of a heritage picture ... like Turner, for example. Definitely best early on when it is fiercely episodic and focused on magisterial peripheral moments. Once it starts to cohere into a kind of statement on a life it begins to falter. Dick Pope's work is exceptional in a way I cannot be alone in not having seen coming.
Not an immediate grabber for me, like some of Leigh's other movies are (though that first shot is gorgeous), but it gains complexity and emotional power as it trundles along. And the acting is phenobulous.
Masterpiece. Ranking amongst the very best of Leigh this film captures its time, society, morality and humanity in a masterful and mature fashion. Spall's creation of Turner is a fierce portrayal of man and artist that reveals as much with a grunt as it does in word or body language.Casting is exceptional but the film is elevated by Dick Pope's cinematography which is as majestic as any painter's canvas. Incredible.
In the opening sequence, next to a river, following two women walking and talking in costumes, begins a travelling that stops to frame Turner drawing in a landscape, supposedly Dutch. More academic would be difficult and the whole movie is a dichotomy between an accomplished formal academicism and the usual oddity in the performance of the protagonist, in this case well emphasized and inevitably rewarded.