All great painters have a method to what may appear to be artistic madness. In the case of 19th century British artist J.M.W. Turner — as seen in this exclusive clip from Mike Leigh’s masterful new biopic, Mr. Turner — that method sometimes involved surprise and misdirection. Having left a splotch of red paint on one of his vividly sketched seascapes, Turner (portrayed by Leigh regular Timothy Spall) later returns to the canvas and carefully dabs at the blot with his finger and thumbnail. Pulling out a handkerchief, he wipes away the streaks that lie below the water surface, turns to the assembled onlookers and announces, “It’s a buoy!” What Turner intended to look like an accident instead turned out to be his final flourish.
Turner’s streak of dry wit is just one of many things audiences will learn about the painter in Leigh’s much-acclaimed film. Far from being a musty history lesson, though, the movie is a captivating evocation of Turner’s era, one that also depicts how the passing decades can relegate — sometimes temporarily, sometimes longer — once titanic talents to the margins, supplanted by new methods and modes of expression.
Already the winner of multiple awards, including two best actor citations for Spall’s impassioned performance, Mr. Turner, in select theaters Dec. 19,seems poised to be an Oscar heavyweight as well. No surprise there — Leigh is one of our modern cinematic masters for a reason.