Mr. Turner (2014) Film Review, a movie directed by Mike Leigh, and starring Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Karl Johnson, Ruth Sheen, Sandy Foster, Amy Dawson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, and Richard Bremmer.
Great movies steal away our attention and hold it hostage until the final frame of film as flickered across the theatre’s screen. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner is one of the rare films that do not attempt to demand our attention, which is fitting for a movie that explores the life of such an eccentric individual. Mr Turner forsakes a conventional biopic recounting, eschewing a linear story in order to present a very fragmented retelling of the renowned artist’s life. The result is a 150-minute film that may cause those anticipating a traditional story-telling approach difficult to get through.
The film follows the revolutionary British painter J.M.W. Turner during the last 25 years of his life. When we first meet the eponymous Mr. Turner he is already an established artist and working under the fawning and scrutinizing eyes of the arts community. Mr. Turner is a crotchety old man whose artistic talent is only surpassed by his world-class brutishness and he displays no patience for navigating the politics of the high society in which his art is so deeply entrenched. The film subverts a traditional narrative; instead spending a great deal of time juxtaposing Turner’s delicately crafted artistic expressions of beauty against the socially inept, emotionally withered curmudgeon of a man’s day to day life. The pace of Mr. Turner is slow and plodding, and it feels as though the film is steadily marching forward, letting us glimpse a series of Turner’s highs and lows. I use the term “glimpses” because the film is presented in a series of episodes from his life rather than an interconnected plot, and there is often little to no back-story to provide us with context for what is occurring. This take it as it is approach that the film applies shines a spotlight on Turner during his good and bad times and never asks us to sympathize with or even like him.
Timothy Spall’s performance is the foundation of Mr. Turner and the viewer’s tolerance of the title character will directly affect their enjoyment of the film. Spall plays Turner as a rough edged, belligerent character that he presents to the audience without pandering. Spall’s interpretation of Turner shuffles from scene to scene with all the grace of a creature that should be lurking under a bridge or haunting a bell tower. He responds to pleasantries with grunts and snorts, fondles and gropes at his maid and childishly kicks over furniture while in a fit of rage. He also commits to his craft by allowing himself to be tied to a ship’s mast during a storm so that he could enhance his perspective of the nature’s power and fury. The film does not try to explain much of Turner’s boorish behaviour and leaves it up to the viewer to decide what kind of man they believe Turner to be.
The film does a solid job showing us what a complicated and divisive character Turner was but never makes it clear why. We know he is a genius because the film tells us he is a genius. We know his work is divisive because at one point a theatre troupe alludes to his work being nonsense. I went into the film without knowing the story of Turner’s life and I found myself detached from the events taking place onscreen while quickly losing interest in the film. Not providing the audience with context for the events in Turner’s life made following the film feel like like tuning in to the final episode of an unfamiliar mini-series.
What the film lacks in plot it makes up for in visual panache. For a film about a famous painter, there were not many scenes of Turner plying his trade but when the focus shifted to his creative process, it was fascinating. Spall does a wonderful job of capturing the frenetic expression of genius in motion and seeing him play Turner doing what he was born to do was amusing. Director Mike Leigh does an exceptional job of playing with color and light to give us scenes that foreshadow some of Turner’s most iconic work. There are certain moments when Mr. Turner’s cinematography allows the film to drift from movie to moving painting.
By the end of the 150 minutes I spent watching Mr. Turner I could not shake the feeling that I had just witnessed the final act of a fascinating story. I walked away from the film understanding that Turner held a central role in the Romantic Movement but without the context of what drove the man to push against the establishment’s boundaries. I equate my experience with this film to taking a train through Paris and sticking my head out a window to catch peeks of the most famous attractions while speeding by and never stopping. I did not feel any connection to the events that occurred in the film although the overall experience would not have felt as tedious if the main character was not such heinous company. Audiences expecting the film to tell a traditional story detailing the life J.M.W. Turner will not be satisfied with this film. If you are interested in a fragmented retelling about a portion of a complicated artist’s life, Mr. Turner may be just what you are looking for.
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