Joseph Mallord William Turner didn't so much speak as cough up phlegmatic sounds. At least, such is the early 19th-century English artist's go-to response as realized by Timothy Spall's lived-in performance in director Mike Leigh's patiently unconventional biopic "Mr. Turner." Whether barking orders at his housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), looking at paintings in the Royal Academy, or listening to a mellifluously foppish John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), Spall's Turner doesn't respond with a verbal thought. He barks and doesn't care if you understand. This noise, depending on the situation, conveys disdain, curiosity, surprise, wonder, tenderness, and even humor. It's an expectorated breath equal parts grunt and scoff: a groff.
The range of the groff's emotions, like Turner himself, is intentionally inscrutable at first. The first few times Turner groffs it sounds like the dismissal of a jaded man, someone dulled by life's indulgences. Leigh and Spall here suggest otherwise—that the condescending dismissal of the sated isn't sophistication, it's the insecurity of the uncurious, the fear that life cannot offer anything new.
Turner's groff is a defense mechanism, and over "Mr. Turner's" two-and-a-half hours Leigh, Spall, and cinematographer Dick Pope, who received an Oscar nomination for his work here, allow you to study Turner as he seeks new experiences. This movie isn't the usual cinematic hagiography that explains, excuses, and exalts an artist's so-called genius. It's something far more generous. "Mr. Turner" imagines what this ordinary man's later life might've been like and encourages you to consider what pushed him to interpret the world he observed as he does in his art.
Don't worry if you're not that familiar with Turner's works. Especially don't fret if all of the above makes you suspect "Mr. Turner" is just another movie about some dead heterosexual white dude cherished by pretentious art types. Yes, J.M.W. Turner—a romantic landscape artist whose late career experiments with light and color anticipated the impressionists who emerged a few decades after his 1851 death—is Britain's most celebrated painter, with the Tate's revered Turner Prize named after him. And, yes, director Leigh obviously admires Turner and considers him a radical. Leigh, however, has spent his entire play, television, and film career dissecting British culture and human foibles with his savagely unsentimental mind. And with "Mr. Turner," as in his W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan portrait "Topsy-Turvy," Leigh has no interest is telling people what makes an artist exceptional. He wants to explore what makes people human.
And Turner here is an off-putting man at first brush. The movie opens in 1826 with the painter at mid-life, already established and admired but not yet abstracting light in ways that made his canvases appear lit from within. Turner looks like a perpetually shambolic eccentric. He lives with his father (Paul Jesson) and Hannah, whom he feels entitled to use for sex when the urge strikes. His treatment of women throughout is callous (though only alluded to, Turner's mother was committed to a mental hospital when he was young). He's annoyed by the appearances of ex-lover Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), and blatantly uninterested in his two daughters by her and their children. At a visit to a brothel he instructs a young woman to disrobe and pose as if giving directions to the privy.
With peers he's only slightly less caustic. He puts up with potential buyers and collectors because he knows he has to. Only with Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), a widow he encounters during coastal visits to Margate, does something close to gentleness surface. Embraces are agreed upon instead of taken.
When Turner gazes upon the world, though, Spall floods Turner's face with the full cavalry of emotions that remain otherwise padlocked. Turner has himself secured to a ship's mast during a storm to drink in nature's violence first hand. Sitting at his father's deathbed, Turner watches the dying man's face as life fights evaporation. Spall doesn't have Turner collapse with loss; he unflinchingly stares. In this moment a man isn't saddened by a loved one's departure. He's studying. He knows what he sees awaits him, too.
That's why the groff is so sneakily effective—it's an utterance of his restless curiosity that fuels his work. Spall's Turner hungers for the unknown and unknowable. Applying pigments to canvas is how he makes sense of what he witnesses, just as putting words on the page is how writers discover what they're thinking.