“All art is quite useless.”

– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

“What is art?” asks John Ruskin, preeminent Victorian art critic and long-time champion of JMW Turner, with all the gravity of one begging the question “what is Religion? or Morality?” In a similar vein, we might ask, From what instinct in man does it spring? To what faculties does it appeal? By what rules is it to be judged? What purpose does it serve? (R.P. Downes) These are the questions that engaged Victorian admirers of art, and which continue to circulate within contemporary criticisms of art and its purpose in modern consciousness and context, but largely within academic institutions and (often) elitist circles. How, then, does art criticism maintain validity in the 21st century machine of temporary flavours? Few art films have broached the subject of art criticism specifically, likely due to the impudence of criticising one art form through the medium of another. However, with his customary cheek and candour intact, Mike Leigh presents an art film in Mr Turner that does not coddle its subject, nor go out of its way to make an emotional case for the eponymous artist’s tortured soul. Moreover, it is neither mired in cliché nor obedience to bourgeois taste, but rejects those very standards of what constitutes ‘good’ art. The criticism is twofold, first presented as Turner’s rejection of the intransigent Victorian art zeitgeist, and then as a sly commentary on perhaps Leigh’s own conceptions of critics of his filmography and more fully, the place of art criticism in the 21st century. In the technological era in which everyone seems to have an opinion on everything (the irony is not lost on me, fear not), Turner balks at public and critical opinion, but instead of bowing to them, forges ahead in solitary pursuit of aesthetic majesty. Mr Turner is not only a subtle satire of the art world however, but a figurative and literal portrait of a deeply complex and human artist, anchored by Timothy Spall’s immense performance as Turner himself, caught between shifting artistic landscapes and personal foibles.

One plague of the modern period film – or indeed, or any period film – is the unquenchable inability to avoid meticulously detailed époque conventions: corsetry and costumes, stately mansions and manicured gardens, and barely concealed Austen-esque notions of romance and courtship amongst the upper-classes (as well as those wishing to be upper-class). These in themselves are not problem, but it is too often that these conventions supersede place of genuine characterisation, such that the conceit of the period piece takes centre stage at the expense of storytelling (for very recent examples, see Belle (2013), Miss Julie (2014), Anna Karenina (2012), The Young Victoria (2009), Great Expectations (2012), etc). Bless Leigh and his rejection of the bourgeois, for it is his life’s work as an acute chronicler of the working class experience that brings a frankness and integrity to Turner’s life and work that simultaneously does not deny his undeniably artistic soul. Mr Turner is a film meant to be seen through the artist’s eyes, not necessarily romanticised, but imbued with the hue of beauty and wonder through which Turner painted his masterpieces, in swathes of colour, movement, and atmosphere.

At the centre of the film is Spall’s Dickensian Turner, a loutish, brutish, and gruff boor of a man, eminently lacking in social graces but curiously attracting the affections of a select few. He communicates largely in grunts and snarls, but his gaucheness belies the depth of brilliance and feeling in all artistic endeavour; he is as deeply moved by the beauty of music as he is by the kindness of others. Spall’s scenes with Marion Bailey as Turner’s last mistress Mrs. Booth form the emotional heart of the film, her uncomplicated and indomitably cheerful nature an ideal balance to Turner’s laconic and gruff countenance. Indeed, it is Leigh’s beautiful rendering of all Turner’s relationships that bring an unparalleled authenticity to this film that elevate it above mere period film convention; one could imagine such characters existing just as peacefully in Life is Sweet or Another Year. Having already established himself a master of human relationships, Leigh also recreates the English landscape through Turner’s eyes, each a canvas of hazy light and shadow that mirror Turner’s works through seamless integration into the narrative, rather than isolated units of display.

Despite the subject matter, Mr Turner is the very antithesis of a period piece, and rather than directing the audience’s gaze to pithy one-liners or heavy-handed third-person exposition, Leigh has conducted a series of moments: snatches of placidity amongst the truculence, motion over stillness, feeling and impressions of atmosphere over the present realism. Mr Turner is a triumph of not one, but three masters – Turner, Spall, and Leigh, each at the height of their artistic prowess.