If the past is a foreign country, then “Mr. Turner” is one of the most rhapsodic foreign films you may ever see. The care and conviction with which writer-director Mike Leigh (“Secrets and Lies”) and his band of artisans have re-created Victorian England is a reward in itself, a visual banquet at its most sumptuous. But the movie’s after much more than that, even if it sometimes looks like less.
For the uninitiated, J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) was an artist of the English Romantic school who rose from working-class beginnings to become one of the most highly praised landscape and seascape painters of his era — and then pushed beyond that, into a growing abstraction that baffled his peers and looks spookily prescient today. Late-period Turners, like “Sunrise With Sea Monsters” (1845) or “Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth” (1842) seem to leapfrog Impressionism to arrive at Abstract Expressionism a full century ahead of schedule; they’re astonishing bursts of light, color, and texture that have only the most tenuous relationship to recorded reality.
Leigh is an acknowledged Turner fanatic, and his achievement here — with the invaluable contributions of cinematographer Dick Pope and production designer Suzie Davies, among others — is to visually replicate the shades and atmospherics of Turner’s art and situate them in his filmed world. So many scenes in “Mr. Turner” open in long shot, a busy human landscape below dwarfed by the high drama of sunlight and clouds above, colors far beyond the scope of an artist’s palette, and way down in a corner, the solitary figure of Mr. Turner (Timothy Spall) trying to put it all on canvas.
What the film doesn’t have a lot of is plot. Already there have been grumblings that “nothing happens” in “Mr. Turner,” that 30 or so years of anecdote and event roll by over the course of 2½ hours without so much as a story arc or dramatic development or, heaven forfend, a climax. A painter paints, grows older, dies. What does he see? What do we see?
In fact, plenty of stuff “happens” in “Mr. Turner,” just not with the flowing movie-logic we’re used to in Great Man bio-pics. We witness the touching relationship between the artist and his father (Paul Jesson), an unassuming barber who became his son’s studio assistant and greatest fan. The fractious rivalries of the British art world are deliciously depicted, the glowering Turner stalking into the annual Royal Academy exhibitions to throw down the final touches to one of his paintings like a rock star tossing off a guitar lick that silences all pretenders. In one scene, he attacks the canvas of “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave,” stabbing at it with a thick brush and blowing vermilion dust like a magician. In another, he plops a rude dab of red onto a seascape and with a wipe of the cloth transforms it into a submerged buoy.
“Mr. Turner” is wise and observant, too, about the society through which its hero lumbers. We meet the nobility Turner courts, the patrons and patronesses who use his art for prestige and occasionally understand it. We have a brief sit-down with a babbling fool who turns out to be the young John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), arguably the first art critic in the modern sense. The precariousness of an artist’s life is illustrated by Turner’s debt-ridden colleague Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), who has talent but no tact and who battles his way out of the Academy and into an early suicide. Turner’s paintings are remarkably free of people; Leigh, by contrast, fills the screen to overflowing, including a late-inning appearance by a girlish Queen Victoria (Sinead Matthews), who examines one of the late masterpieces and pronounces it “a dirty yellow mess.”
Spall’s Turner cuts a curious figure in this throng: an eccentric yet utterly confident outsider whose skill brings him deep inside the halls of power, or as far as he’s willing to go. The performance is one of scowls and grimaces, grunts and mutterings, and at times the actor seems to have invented an entirely new language of vocalized non-communication. Spall plays it intuitively and very bravely, refusing to meet us halfway. He knows, as Turner knew, that the art does the talking. This extends to the painter’s relationships (if that’s the word) with the women in his life: the discarded mother of his daughters (Leigh regular Ruth Sheen), the lifelong housemaid (Dorothy Atkinson) he relies on and mistreats (today we’d call it sexual harassment; in the context of the time, it’s some-thing between ownership and affection), and the widowed landlady (Marion Bailey, achingly fine) with whom he settled later in life.
Many of those later scenes take place in Margate, the seaside town to which Turner retreated when his fame grew too much or his art too controversial, and both the painter and the director seem enraptured by its light. By now, you may be in heaven or a specific kind of moviegoing hell. “Mr. Turner” is an intriguing test case: What happens when filmmakers don’t make stuff up to keep the story moving along? When they resist the urge to cut history to fit the lines and seams of narrative storytelling?
A life is not plot; plot is not life. By scrupulously sticking not just to the accuracies of Turner’s life as we know them but to the tiniest of details, the chipped mugs on kitchen tables, the pantaloons on a passing merchant, the spray of storm surf across the bow of a ship, Leigh wants us to truly see the world Turner moved through. Only by seeing that world can we see how he saw and painted it. “Mr. Turner” is an attempt to reverse-engineer a pathway into an artist’s mind, as daft in its way as the 2013 documentary “Tim’s Vermeer,” in which a non-artist tried to paint “The Music Lesson” by re-creating Vermeer’s Delft studio.
Rebuild the era and you’ll understand the art? “Mr. Turner” takes the approach to an illuminated extreme — see it on a big screen if you see it at all — and in so doing becomes a work of art itself.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.