Painter of Light

Mike Leigh captures a genius at odds with his times

The question of obsolescence is essential to Mike Leigh’s superb Mr. Turner, illustrating an offbeat artist’s contradictory life.

Joseph Turner (1775–1851) was the painter of seaside turbulence, of smoke and brume. In some respects, he anticipated the action painters of the 1950s: Turner “painted” with fingernails and spittle. He is played by Timothy Spall, best known from the Harry Potter films as a wererat. Spall’s squinting, ambling Turner is more like a bear half-out of hibernation. He growls and rumbles his displeasure at everything, from the rising price of pigments to the less than acute criticism coming his way.

Spall also shows us a cordial, good-humored figure. He’s a Dickensian character in some respects—a self-made man, free to speak his mind. He brings a burr and roll to the dialogue, and in the process recalls actors such as W. C. Fields and Charles Laughton.

Many of the people who will hate Mr. Turner will hate it for the artist’s home life—especially the scenes of his brutish use and neglect of his adoring servant Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), who was crippled with psoriasis. Yet Mr. Turner shows the true satisfaction of domesticity when Turner finally meets his soul mate, Sophia (Marion Bailey), a bright-eyed but seasoned Margate innkeeper with a Kentish accent. Bailey’s warmth and merriness in the role show a kind of attractiveness that’s exactly opposite the brand sold at magazine stands.

As Victorian society got wealthier and duller, the national art became loftier. The pre-Raphaelites came into fashion, flattering the aristocrats who liked to see themselves as the descendants of King Arthur. Through it all, Turner’s canvases became more abstract. What befell Turner is similar to what happened to James Whistler, years later, who was accused of throwing a pot of paint in the public’s face.

Leigh revels in the physicality of this long-gone era. Between the lines, he provides a lesson on how to keep the soul on guard, even as he seeks those things that endure beyond the vagaries of taste.

‘Mr. Turner’ opens Friday, Feb. 6, at Summerfield Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.522.0719.