Artful Look at a Champion Artist in Mr. Turner
Review by Daniel Rester
Mr. Turner, the latest film from writer-director Mike Leigh, tells the story of 19th century artist Joseph Mallord William Turner. The famous and eccentric painter is played here by character actor Timothy Spall, who picked up the Best Actor award for his portrayal at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The win was worthy in my eyes, with Spall delivering a masterful performance in this exquisite biopic.
Rather than focusing on Turner’s entire life, Leigh decides to turn to the artist’s final 25 years or so in his life. This is a smart and refreshing move. It allows the film to bypass some usual biopic trappings, such as the origin of a man’s genius through his younger years. Instead we drop in on Turner after he is already famous for his landscape paintings, allowing the audience to see his ongoing influence and eventual health deterioration.
Leigh’s plot doesn’t have any “big task” or something similar for Turner to achieve, which is both a plus and a negative. On one hand we get to see a bunch of little bits of Turner’s life that add to his character while also avoiding a typical biopic story route. On the other hand the film just doesn’t have much weight to it, which causes interest to come and go.
What does hold attention throughout is Spall’s performance. The actor disappears as Turner, doing more with grunts and subtle facial expressions than dialogue. Leigh and Spall make Turner completely human, warts and all — never just putting him up on a pedestal. We get to see him as funny, stubborn, depressed, kind, and so on, with Spall navigating the various qualities with extreme skill.
Mr. Turner allows us to think about many different situations that likely affected Turner’s life. This includes seeing Turner’s relationship with a struggling artist named Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), his on-and-off sexual exploitation of his housekeeper named Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), and his attraction to his widowed landlady named Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). Leigh’s movie also takes some time to chew on pain from family loss, “chaos vs. harmony” in art and what is “important enough” to paint, and the effect on painters once the camera was invented.
Yet despite taking notice of these many aspects of Turner’s life, the film never has much oomph to it and begins to bore a bit near the final stretch. At 2 hours and 29 minutes, the movie easily feels 40 minutes too long. Shaving off filler scenes — like a stretched musical performance in the beginning — could have helped a lot.
There are still many scene gems throughout the picture though, most of them involving the various women who affected Turner deeply. This includes two beautiful scenes that stick in the mind. One involves Turner admiring the piano piece a musician plays in a mansion, with him attempting to sing along but obviously not excelling as a vocal artist. The other scene involves Turner sketching a prostitute, treating her well while exposing his inner sadness. These moments have a curiosity and poignancy to them that is gripping.
With its subject and period setting, the film actually isn’t as dry in terms of dialogue as some might think. We get plenty of stuffy characters who put on fake outer shells, but Leigh isn’t afraid of poking fun at them at times instead of just letting them be one-note rich guys. Joshua McGuire is especially hilarious as John Ruskin, making the art critic character over-the-top with his points about different artists; the actor’s certain vocal pitches are spot-on. Most of the humor in Mr. Turner hits while also being tasteful; a few good sexual jokes are sprinkled in though.
Leigh’s film is very admirable on a technical level. The production design by Suzie Davies and the costume design by Jacqueline Durran never feel tacky, instead giving off the look of lived-in settings and clothes. Dick Pope’s cinematography is gorgeous, with scenes often being framed in wide shots and having sun glows to them; the opening shot of a windmill with a sunset in the background is especially awe-inspiring. Gary Yershon’s music uses violins nicely, with a certain bounciness to it, but some of the time the score feels off; certain tunes sound more fitting for a horror film, with long strokes and somewhat dissonant noises. Also, the sound in general has a bit of fuzziness to it from time to time. At first I thought this might have been the theater speakers, but then I realized that other scenes sounded very clean.
Mr. Turner has a fine look and terrific acting, and it gives us a refreshing take on the biopic genre. I recommend seeing it, yet it disappoints me that the film comes so close to being great but doesn’t quite reach that level. If it had not been so long, and had gotten into its main character’s head a bit more, it would have been there. Still, see it for Spall’s excellent work and the filmmaking craftsmanship on display.
Score: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B+).
MPAA Rating: R (for some sexual content).
Runtime: 2 hours and 29 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: December 19th, 2014 (limited).