Mr. Turner (2014) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for some sexual content
Running Time: 150 min.
Cast: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Marion Bailey, Dorothy Atkinson, Ruth Sheen, Karl Johnson
Director: Mike Leigh
Screenplay: Mike Leigh
Review published December 9, 2014
Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky) writes and directs this biopic about the latter part of English painter J.M.W. Turner's life, from his middle age in the 1820s to his death in 1851. Leigh paints Turner (Spall, Upside Down) as a crusty, boorish sort, whose refined works have won him great acclaim among his peers, but whose uncouth behavior often bristles with the aristocracy that would be his most likely patrons. This isn't a film concerned so much with major character or story arcs so much as it is an exploration of the art world of the times, particularly in the battle between expression and commerce, and how self expression sometimes takes a back seat to the whims of the viewing public who determine what they like and what they don't.
From a production standpoint, Mr. Turner is beautifully put together, with immaculate costumes, rich set design, wonderful illumination, and excellent make-up and hair work. Plus, Dick Pope's (Man of the Year, The Illusionist) cinematography is a work of art in itself. The table is certainly set for an enriching and entertaining drama to educate and inspire. There really isn't much of a plot to pin things on, as it is, more or less, a straightforward envisioning of the life of the famous painter, relating such things as his relationship with his elderly father (Jesson, All or Nothing), his affair with housekeeper Hannah Danby (Atkinson, Topsy-Turvy), his estrangement from his ex-mistress and daughters, and a relationship he enjoyed with a twice widow (soon to be thrice), Sophia Booth (Bailey, Vera Drake). In between the personal stuff, we get a good deal of his professional life, such as his dealing with his colleagues and rivals, his critics, and his admirers and detractors in all walks of life, including a most disapproving Queen Victoria. As Turner's work gets more abstract, he soon becomes something of a laughingstock among those who don't get his new impressionistic style.
Longtime Leigh favorite Spall is in full-on character mode here, which can be good or bad, depending on how much of his occasionally cartoonish demeanor you buy as possibly being indicative of the real Mr. Turner. Much of the time, he resembles an animal of the porcine variety (an early scene in which he is show eating a pig's head lends some comparison), snorting, grunting, or growling like a boar, or humping like one when he gets the urge. Unlike most films set in the period, it is delightfully un-stuffy in its approach and delivery, especially considering it is about the world of fine art.
Nevertheless, for all of its scope and sumptuous presentation, the film curiously feels like it is missing something deeper thematically that would take it from a good slice-of-life biographical film to a truly great one. It is a breeze to watch, even after a puffed-out 2 hours and 30 minutes, though those who continue to expect the film to congeal into an overall main point will likely come away empty-handed. It's a life, just like any other, so there really isn't anything Leigh gives to audiences on a silver platter. Even something such as what motivates him to make such works of art is elusive. Like the work of Mr. Turner himself, it is the accumulation of little details that make the best pictures, not just the main subject that we first glance from afar.
©2014 Vince Leo