Not usually a fan of Mike Leigh's work, but thoroughly enjoyed this film, which is slow-paced & impressionistic, with distinct scenes that seem apparently unrelated, but which harmonise into a whole. Leigh's film echoes Turner's approach to art: both take an unorthodox approach. Leigh's film does not possess a linear narrative, but is a series of impressions that hang together (like pictures in an exhibition) to form an organic whole. A cynic might wonder if Leigh views himself as a latter day incarnation of Turner as an artist (misunderstood).
The film (three hours) is structured around Turner & his relationships, firstly with his beloved father & loyal maid-servant Danby in London; secondly with a landlady he meets on his painting trips to the Kent seaside; & the final strand, about the ageing painter with his contemporaries, nascent art criticism (Ruskin's intellect contrasts with Turner's intuitive, instinctual approach), with the public (ridicule) & royalty, a man seemingly out of touch with new movements (the pre-Raphaelites) , fearful of being forgotten though still retaining faith in his own distinctive artistic vision ('it will come': understanding), whose genius is appreciated by the few (the compassionate doctor), a man ahead of his time anticipating the new French art movement to come.
The film is the study of an inarticulate man but one with a very deep instinct & artistic vision, a man fuelled by both a passion for art & the sensual. There are echoes of Hesse & his multiplicity of selves, in the way Turner is a man both of sublime vision but also of powerful sexual drives (his sexual exploitation of his long-suffering maid-servant). He is a visionary but also a loving son, socially awkward, moody & grunting assent yet capable of deep feeling & passion (his faltering yet moving rendition of Purcell). These multiple personalities are reflected in how those around him address him: to his father & estranged mother of his children, he is simply 'Billy', to his contemporaries (Constable) 'William' & 'Turner' & in the upper echelons as 'Mr Turner'.
'Mr Turner' is also about his relationship with those around him, in particular, his beloved father, 'Daddy', Mrs Booth, the landlady with whom he finds content & loving understanding of the whole man, the unfortunate Danby, loving but neglected & Benjamin Haydon, a fellow artist.
This artistic relationship provides a fascinating strand to the story & a real undertow of tragedy for we know history saw Turner vindicated, but what happens to the artist who is mediocre & whose sacrifice proves vain? Haydon, too, is a man of passion, anarchic, angry at being derided & whose outbursts provide vitriolic black humour. He is, sadly, a rebel without a cause. (Researching Haydon's life following the film, he committed suicide. Dickens, usually so compassionate in his books, made a caustic appraisal of Haydon's work).
Both Haydon & Turner are marginalised & misunderstood by their contemporaries, though one is ridiculed for a lack of talent ('Self portrait of an ass'), the other for being innovative, respected but regarded as veering off into his own eccentric direction (the scene in the RA where he apparently ruins a picture, but then smears over the paint). Such relationships throw a kind of chiaroscuro, light & dark, (tonal contrasts) over proceedings so that we see Turner in different kinds of light (light being central to his work as an artist). Turner's talent allows him to flit between the social worlds of aristocratic salons & the brothel.
Thank heavens for Film4 +1 as one scene completely left me befuddled & yet after watching it again, this challenging scene is probably the emotional key to understanding the film & the man. This is the scene with the experiment regarding colour & light undertaken by Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville), a scientist. The experiment about the magnetic pole & spectrum of colours reflects both Turner's personality (artistic, sexual, a man of contradictions) & the impressionistic nature/vision of the film itself, contradictory elements that harmonise into a whole. It is also a scene where the normally inarticulate Turner is voluble as if the nature of science justifies his vision of art, of capturing light & shade.
The final scene, of the artist out in the open air as seen through the loving eyes of his companion harks back to the opening one set in the dusk of the Dutch countryside, of a free spirit out in the open air.