'Mr. Turner' is a master stroke

Mr. Turner: A-

Timothy Spall is in good company. Along with Tom Hardy (Locke), Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), David Oyelowo (Selma), and Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), he rounds out the list of five actors who should have been nominated for an Oscar this year but were overlooked. While the official nominees all turned in fine performances, not one was more deserving. And in Spall's case, an "oh, that guy" British character actor who rarely gets a leading role, it's a particularly egregious oversight.

Playing the obscure 19th century British painter Joseph M.W. Turner, whose work was only fully appreciated long after his death, Spall commits himself body and soul to an intensely troubled but creatively inspired man who went to extreme lengths — including, at one point, strapping himself to a ship's mast during a snowstorm — to capture the abstract grandeur of natural landscapes. Deeply connected to his father and willfully rebellious and alienating to almost everyone else, Spall delivers an intensely personal portrait of an ugly and complicated man who created astonishingly gorgeous works of art. It's a towering performance that is less a proclamation of Turner's artistic genius and more a creative character study, capturing how a man so unhappy and physically challenged chose to express himself through his paintings.

Director Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, Secrets & Lies, Naked) once again takes an improvisational approach to the storytelling, long developing his script with his cast to fill in the many blanks in Turner's dry, sketchy biography. The result is a combination of cherry-picked fact, fanciful invention, and dramatic mythmaking (with hints of magical realism), unsettling to those who expect historical accuracy. Anyone who knows Leigh's method wouldn't be surprised that Mr. Turner is more of an intuitive collage than a faithful dramatization of reality. But given the media's recent discussions about cinema's responsibility to "the truth," it's fair to say that the movie unabashedly mixes fact and fiction. Luckily, few will find reasons to take one side or the other in a film about a lesser-known Victorian-era painter.

Leigh's sense of story structure, however, is a completely different matter. At 150 minutes, Mr. Turner meanders through the last 25 years of the dyspeptic painter's life, haphazardly chronicling the ebb and flow of the painter's career as he travels from place to place (sometimes hiding his identity) seeking new inspirations. Awkwardly dour and all too willing to challenge the stiff-collared conceits of Victorian society, he is a comically sad figure who pushes others away in order to be alone with his work. Leigh wants us to see things through Turner's lumbering yet passionate gaze, as he hurls himself from one state of catharsis to the next. It's a fascinating, mostly plotless examination of one man's tortured artistic process.

Nothing drives this home better than cinematographer Dick Pope's ravishing — almost rhapsodic — imagery. Pope composes his shots so that the border between real-life landscapes and Turner's canvases blur, one bleeding into the other, bridging the gap between what is seen and how the painter experiences it. It's an astounding achievement, highlighting the way artistic minds encounter the natural world and turn them into instances of unreal beauty. This very notion, the volatile fealty to personal vision and creative expression, is probably what connected Leigh to his subject. Unconcerned with historic accuracy or conventional three-act storytelling, his own work has been driven by spontaneous and intuitive creation and collaboration. Mr. Turner is an illustration, if not defense, of the creative process, whatever it may be and whatever it may yield.

Mr. Turner is rated R and has a running time of 150 minutes. It opens Jan. 30 at Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township.

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