REVIEW: Mr. Turner

5 09 2014

Telluride Film Festival

When I spent last fall in London, I often found myself wandering the halls of art museums (largely since they boasted free admission).  Quite often, I would walk past a painting on the wall without giving it much thought, admiring its remarkable craft but feeling rather unmoved emotionally.  One painter whose work struck me on a deep and profound level, though, was J.M.W. Turner, whose work with light and shadow predated the renowned Impressionist movement.

I was hoping that Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” a film who places J.M.W. Turner in the subject position, would stir me similarly.  Unfortunately, I can’t really say that I felt the same pull to Leigh’s film as I do to Turner’s paintings.  But simply because I did not respond deeply to it does not mean the work is entirely void of merit.  I simply appreciate it more than I like or enjoy it.

Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner

With the exception of 2011’s “Another Year,” I seem to be rather immune to being swept away of Mike Leigh’s uniquely derived products.  (For those who don’t know, Leigh formulates his screenplay in tandem with the efforts of his actors in a lengthy, laborious rehearsal process.)  The characters all seem well-formed, and the dialogue always feels quite natural.  It just never feels exciting to watch.

In a sense, though, that’s kind of the point.  “Mr. Turner” is a biopic in the sense that it covers the life of J.M.W. Turner, but Leigh resists all the clichés and conventions we are normally conditioned to expect from a movie about a true-life creative mind.  Turner has no flashes of mad inspiration, nor does every word he utters ring with capital-I “importance.”  In fact, we rarely get to see his creative process at all.

Leigh uses “Mr. Turner” not to show how his subject is extraordinary, but rather the many ways in which he is ordinary.  It’s a biopic hiding inside an ensemble drama where Turner happens to have the most screen time.  Timothy Spall, a consummate character actor perhaps best known for his turn as Peter Pettigrew in the “Harry Potter” series, certainly makes the most of the attention given his grimacing genius Turner.  It’s a physically committed, emotionally potent performance that gives him a much-deserved moment in the spotlight.

Mr. Turner

Spall gets just as much of a chance to play Turner as an everyman than he does to play him as an artist.  We witness his creative madness at the Academy, greeted with predictable derision, with the same frequency that we observe his curious relationships with household maid Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) and seaside landlady Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey).  Though played with the same understated veracity of a character actor, Spall’s Turner is clearly very human.

Leigh matches Spall’s tempo (or perhaps it’s the other way around) by leisurely strolling through Turner’s life.  The deliberate, though often languid, pacing feels appropriate for “Mr. Turner.”  He avoids the trappings of stodgy, stuffy costume dramas by injecting the perfect amount of wit at the right time.  Most of his humor is employed to poke fun at the pretentiousness of the art community and the short-sightedness of its patrons, who sneered at Turner’s late masterpieces by saying that he “takes leave of form altogether.”

It’s tempting to draw a parallel between Leigh and Turner as artists in light of that last quote, but I’d stop short of saying “Mr. Turner” is as brilliantly iconoclastic as Turner’s revolutionary paintings.   Leigh does a nice job creating a portrait consisting of unique brushstrokes.  While it might not be breathtaking, it is certainly intriguing in its own quiet, unassuming way.  B+ / 3stars

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