Sony Pictures Classics

For all his importance to the artistic canon, precious little is known about the painter J.M.W. Turner. The history books give us a very dry account of what appears to be an alternately sad and highly successful life: Turner was the son of a London barber and a mother who was mentally unstable (committed, ultimately, to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunaticks in 1799). He was an only child after his sister died at the age of four, but also something of a prodigy: He attended the Royal Academy Schools, hitched a ride on the era’s lucrative landscape-painting trend, then settled comfortably into a public image as a genius. Solitary and unsociable, Turner’s private life is largely unknown except for those details that resonate in his work: He travelled abroad in the summers to sketch, holed up in the winter to realize them on large canvases. He liked spending time with his father, fishing, and, later in life, visiting his mistress Sophia Caroline Booth, who lived in Margate, which was itself suspiciously attractive to him as a painting destination.

All of this background is accounted for in Mr. Turner, a gorgeous, important film that is not a biopic, at least according to its director, Mike Leigh. Given the painstaking extent of the depiction, though—the story spans mid-life to death—it really is one, but you can see why Leigh would be loathe to use the term: To fill in the blanks in Turner’s imprecise biography, Leigh has turned to his own dramatic intuition and his signature improvisational method. The resulting story is playful with the details, loose with the facts, and somewhat unfaithful to the worldview painted by the grand master that is its protagonist. It is also a grand, inspiring work of cinema that stands on its own merits and lovingly, gently portrays the painter, even if it takes some liberties with his darker side.

Turner painted in broad, thick strokes that anticipated abstraction, particularly later in his life. That’s when the film picks up with him, in his early 50s. He composed everything with his signature glowing light, which often strobes from dark clouds or emanates off the sea, or in the case of his self-portrait at the age of 24, incandescently radiates from his face, which is handsome and framed with silver hair. The film casts him in a less-lustrous light, selecting Timothy Spall (the character actor best known as Wormtail in the Harry Potter series) to play him as an artist of oafish demeanor and voracious sensibility, at turns jovial and taciturn. Spall grunts and growls in conversation with Turner’s father (I heard “How was your journey?” “It was execrable.” It could easily also be: “Mmmgrrhrrrm”). He gropes the help, his longtime housekeeper Hannah Danby, with the unchallenged brazenness of a man of his era, and a desperate one at that. He paints in silence in his studio, the light streaming in from the outside as the household busies itself around him, tending to the needs of a man who even at home commands his own orbit.

The film takes a meandering, creative approach to Turner’s life and travels, offering up visually stunning set pieces that emulate the artist’s own compositions. This emulation happens in ways both readily apparent and not. The golden light suffusing the frame as characters fling open heavy curtains in seemingly every room they walk into: an obvious reference. Less so: An exact recreation of Turner painting in front of two tittering young ladies à la The Artist and His Admirers; a shot of a train smokestack spewing ominous grey smoke into the sky just like the locomotive in Rain, Steam and Speed; on-location shooting in Petworth, whose architecture, natural and man-made, Turner really portrayed in his work. These touches are both a testament to Turner’s eye and a reminder to the viewer that we are in the realm of magical realism, where paint bleeds in with the biography of the man.

Spall’s Turner is a consummate performer, quoting his favorite poets as he appraises the paintings of others (Wordsworth and Scott were particular favorites) and warbling along to Henry Purcell when he spots an old flame at the piano (leaving us to imagine that it was good fortune, indeed, he chose the visual arts). He even paints like an actor, mixing his colors with egg yolks, doing extemporaneous touch-ups (live-paints?) at the Academy—at one point he dabs a blob of scarlet onto one of his own masterpieces in order to skewer his rival John Constable—and spitting, constantly, onto his canvases. Spall’s performance is so absorbing it’s only too easy to overlook that that last part was probably not true: As the co-curator of a Turner exhibit at the Getty in Los Angeles pointed out to the New York Times, water and oil do not mix.

In recent weeks Mr. Turner has come under fire for taking such liberties, especially regarding the depiction of Turner’s unfavorable characteristics. In all of his films, Leigh has the cast improvising their characters, with their best, most spontaneous lines becoming the content of the script. So however much research is poured into the roles (reportedly months for most of the cast members here, and two years for Spall, who took the time to learn how to paint), ultimately, the scenes that make it onscreen boil down to the imprecise art of chemistry and playacting.

This improvisational approach to history has unsettled some, especially with regards to the scene when Turner forcibly has sex with his servant Hannah Danby from behind, against a bookshelf. The implications are clear: She is sneaking a book from the shelf after a self-educated woman visits the house, seemingly inspired to do the same, and Turner catches her in the act, then asserts his authority over her physically, and humiliatingly. The scene was invented reportedly because Turner was her master for 30 to 40 years and, as Leigh told Crave Online, it “felt very right.” The Huffington Post disagreed, calling out as another example of recent movies “butchering history” in the vein of Zero Dark Thirty and Argo.

Yes, Mr. Turner pays more attention to creating a satisfying film than to sourcing responsibly. This is almost fitting. Art builds on art, and new movements by necessity play loose with their predecessors to make progress. Turner knew this better than anyone. He emulated the Great Masters (Nicolas Poussin, Aelbert Cuyp), even while working with watercolors, a little-respected form at the time. And the glowing reviews that made his name, from art critic John Ruskin, came at the expense of his idol and stylistic predecessor, Claude Lorrain, whom Ruskin detested. This fact plagued Turner, and the movie takes his side here: Ruskin is slippery-tongued and insufferable enough to make the critic of Birdman look positively motherly.

Mr. Turner treats the facts with no less mercilessness, but at least it honors Turner even as it cherry-picks from his biography. 150 minutes of a stodgy Victorian artist few remember become compelling thanks to the Leigh’s masterful combination of reality, invention, and myth. Turner’s myth, indeed, holds that he strapped himself to the mast of the ship in order to paint the sea, an image that forms one of the film’s best scenes. His forcible affair with his servant, while awful to see, is of a piece with the rest of Turner’s character as Leigh imagines him. When in mourning for someone close to him, Turner visits a whorehouse simply to paint one, out of the same compulsive, hungry need that motivates him in every other corner of his life, for good or ill. All we once had left of Turner were his paintings and a few biographies—now we have a vibrant work of cinema to commemorate his art, and where it took us.

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