Mr. Turner is the story of the last 25 years of the life of British artist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), an English Romanticist landscape painter and watercolorist. His dramatic landscapes and color-washed seascapes prefigured Impressionism and the abstract art of the twentieth century. One of his paintings, The Fighting Temeraire, is considered one of the the greatest paintings in Western art. He also invented modern watercolor techniques. Turner was so innovative that he remains influential today.
Turner (played by Timothy Spall) himself was a shambling warthog of a man, notorious among his friends for his secretiveness, brusqueness, and lack of hygiene. To me, though, there is something modern and self invented about him—he marketed himself and built his own showroom, and made appearances that were a bit like modern performance art.
The late Georgian world depicted in Mr. Turner has been created with infinite attention to detail, and if you like the sensation of being transported back in time, you will enjoy the movie. The director, Mike Leigh, also created Topsy Turvy, a biopic about Gilbert and Sullivan, and there is a similar, almost hyperreal sense of the past in that movie.
There have been a number of criticisms of this movie–one is that “nothing happens,” but it’s a character study, not an action flick. Then there is Turner himself, who at one point is shown abusing his servant, Hannah Danby (played by Dorothy Atkinson). He was complex, no doubt about it, and one of the themes of the movie is the strange form that genius may take. In the last ten years of his life, he lived a double life, living part-time with a former landlady named Mrs. Booth. I think Mrs. Booth, played with a luminous sweetness by Marion Bailey, saw the good in Turner, and the magic of this movie is that we are able to, as well.