Directed & Written by: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey
Other than some gorgeous cinematography coupled with equally gorgeous paintings, Mr. Turner falls pretty flat. This film is less about a story and more about a man’s life; but the lack of a plot progression coupled with an unlikable character makes Mr. Turner‘s running time of 150 minutes a bit difficult to stomach.
Timothy Spall plays J.M.W. Turner, a Romantic British painter working in the 1800s. He primarily painted landscapes of places both natural and man made. Turner regularly ventures to an ocean-front town where he falls in love with a landlady, and subsequently, the sea. Through his visits to see Sophia Booth Turner develops a preoccupation with the sea and develops a fondness for painting its fury, calm, and glory. When he is not seaside, he is at home often taking advantage of the love and kindness of his housekeeper. Turner’s grief upon the loss of his father is also explored.
If the goal of Mr. Turner was to show how someone who is so outwardly unpleasant can create something beautiful, mission accomplished. In fact, I think there may have been an overemphasis on how unpleasant Turner was; that or he just rubbed me the wrong way. Timothy Spald is very good speaking almost entirely in grunts, especially in the latter half of the film. His performance is so…bodily. He attacks the canvas as he paints, often jabbing the brush into it, sometimes even spitting on it to create the desired affect. He grunts and pants and is mouth breathing through most of the film. These non-verbal expressions start as concerning, grow to be very annoying and eventually a little endearing near the end. However, Spald plays Turner in a grating way; by the end of the film I was starting to feel that same bodily discomfort that I feel watching a David Lynch movie (No, I still have not gotten through Eraserhead. It makes me feel like my body is being turned inside out; it’s fucking brilliant. I digress.)
My distaste for the character aside, one cannot deny that Mr. Turner was beautifully photographed. Dick Pope was the cinematographer on this film and he did some really unique and interesting things. In a film about a painter, particularly one that is so vexed on the complexity of his surroundings, the cinematography has the responsibility to somehow reflect that artists work or the story that they are telling. Dick Pope crafted these beautiful images that are sometimes an homage to Turner’s paintings, sometime serve as a direct contrast. The camera rarely movies in Mr. Turner and often situates the audience to have an unexpected perspective of a scene. Early in the film there is a lengthy conversation that Turner has with his colleagues at a gallery. The three men are watching another walk away into the distance and during this entire conversation camera is situated so that we only see the backs of the men talking. Only when blocking moves their position are we privy to see these three men speak.
There were a few very well edited moments which cut from Turner’s painting right to a gorgeous shot of Turner walking through a field or near the shore; on more than one occasion the tone of these images blended so well together it was difficult to differentiate the two.
Pope’s best work on Mr. Turner is seen in the shots of the English countryside in natural light. Turner seized the power of natural light in his paintings and Pope has harnessed the same to bring out the beauty of the terrain. In some ways Mr. Turner almost seems like an excuse to write a love letter to the English landscape, and less about the life of Turner- but can the two really be separated?
That being said, the many inconsistencies with the film make it difficult to enjoy beyond the visual aesthetics. While the narrative didn’t harp on the trope of the ‘tortured artist’, it also didn’t create a character with whom we can reasonably sympathize. Until about the final third of the movie everything feels fragmented and I became more and more detached from the story– the score didn’t help this. It had this odd, foreboding element to it which felt completely out of place.
Final Verdict: I wish Mr. Turner had featured more of Marion Bailey, she was a delight in the role she played and would have been even more delightful if her part had been given a bit more complexity. I get the impression that she is capable of a much bigger range than she was able to show playing Sophia Booth. There was potential to liven up her story a bit, shed a new light on Turner; it’s frustrating to see that opportunity squandered. Unless you’re eager to catch these images on the big screen, I’d say you can skip Mr. Turner. It had its moments, but I can’t say that I got much more out of it than a deep appreciation for Dick Pope and a desire to explore the English countryside.
Where can I see this? Mr. Turner is currently playing in select theaters, most likely at your local art house theater.