Mr. Turner: Also Lesley Manville Is Never Not Great

Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy is the smartest tweaking of the Important Artist Biopic I’ve ever seen, ticking off all the standard, requisite plot points while undercutting the dull myth of the inspired solitary magical creator, hewing to each convention only to ever so slightly undermine it. So I had to promise myself not to draw comparisons on my way in to see Mr. Turner, which reworks that awful genre in its own quiet, devastating way.

Mr. Turner is a movie about work, centered on a man whose job is to look at things, and it’s a movie about the many human lives sacrificed to enable that work. Turner’s father (Paul Jesson) dotes like a comic servant, literally dying in his son’s service; Turner uses his maid, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), for the occasional impersonal release of sexual energy until an autumnal stumble into domestic contentment with his landlady (Marion Booth) makes Hannah redundant. (One of the film’s subtlest, most affecting moments: After a quick, standing rut from behind, Danby stretches her head back to kiss Turner’s face, which has already pulled away.) And Martin Savage’s impoverished and frustrated Benjamin Haydon frets and fumes his way periodically into Turner’s life to remind the successful genius that had he not cruelly cut off his family, he too might be an outcast debtor.

Timothy Small’s pursed, fleshy face is both ichthyoid and porcine and calls out for just such fancified classically derived descriptors. Its impassivity invites close study, a search for the slightest ripple of emotion across that rubber mask. He and Leigh make the most of the fact that Turner’s heroic artistic vision emanates from a squat Dickensian lump whose vocabulary of grunts is narrower than Chewbacca’s, though no less expressive. (The scene where Turner croaks a Purcell duet is highly recommended to fans of later Scott Walker.)

Leigh’s choices chafe my admittedly bio-picky sensibilities in the home stretch, starting right around the time Joshua McGuire’s effete John Ruskin flits on-screen. Ruskin’s rep can fend for itself, but the caricature’s used to make cheap shots against critics (what’d we ever do to you, Mike?) and leads to a few stagy scenes where Turner finds his increased abstraction questioned by aesthetes and philistines alike. As Turner persists, experiments, and declines, Leigh leaves us waiting for some dramatic turnaround that never comes, some late-life revelation that’s wisely withheld. Instead Turner paints. He ages. He dies.

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