Six of the eight films made by British director Mike Leigh in the last 20 years have earned Oscar nominations, but it's hard to name a filmmaker less concerned with the commercial pressures of Hollywood. From his breakthrough early films Life Is Sweet and Naked to recent successes like Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake, Leigh has crafted stark, realistic stories about working-class people told with humor, insight and compassion. His methods typically involve months of improvisation and discussion with his actors to develop characters, story and a shooting script, which Leigh then refines into a finished screenplay. All of which typically has little to do with the way anyone makes a historical biopic like Mr. Turner, Leigh's intimate portrait of Britain's greatest painter, the 19th-century visionary Joseph Mallord William Turner.
Leigh has navigated similar waters before with 1999's Topsy Turvy, a musical drama about Gilbert and Sullivan, the Victorian-era composers of comic operas. But the largely internal journey of a painter is a far cry from musical theater as the subject of a film. Leigh supplements his usual methods for Mr. Turner — a great deal of historical research provides the foundation for the film's vivid imagining of Turner's last quarter century (he was 76 when he died) — but the results are grounded in the mundane realities of everyday life, just as in Leigh's many tales of modern-day London.
With its slow-and-steady pace and reliance on nuances of character and interpersonal relationships, the 149-minute Mr. Turner is not for everyone. But those who can give themselves over to it will be rewarded with a uniquely immersive period piece that manages to evoke the beauty and mystery of Turner's paintings.
Mr. Turner is a study in contrasts and contradictions. It roughly covers the years from 1825 to 1850, in which the artist used his extraordinary gifts to capture the pristine grandeur and chaotic violence of the natural world as the industrial age approached. (You don't need a degree in art theory to appreciate Turner's work, which also anticipates the even more widely celebrated impressionists who came soon after.) Leigh's Turner is an impassioned humanist who ignores his family and exploits the affections of his devoted housekeeper, an enfant terrible who provokes the arts establishment while supporting less talented peers. A world traveler most comfortable in his home studio, Turner has himself tied to a ship's mast in a blinding snowstorm so he later can commit the scene to canvas.
Appearing in his sixth Leigh film, British actor Timothy Spall radiates a deep humanity as the gruff Turner, a man who communicates mostly through a variety of oddly expressive grunts. The entire cast brings a lived-in quality to their roles that can only result from the painstaking preparation and lengthy rehearsal times central to Leigh's techniques.
Perennial champions of shooting with film, Leigh and longtime collaborator and cinematographer Dick Pope embrace digital moviemaking for the first time with Mr. Turner. Early on, the film serves up the bucolic scenes and pretty landscapes in which Turner surely found initial inspiration for his work. But it's all a setup for images created for the film's later stages to reflect the spirit of Turner's visual art. Leigh and Pope use computer-generated imagery to add painterly effects to their widescreen landscapes with astonishing results. Mr. Turner doesn't look like any other film I remember — just as Turner stood apart from the artists of his time.