Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner tells the story, perhaps unsurprisingly, of the life and career of J.M.W. Turner, the British painter, whom many consider as the man who elevated landscape painting to previously unseen heights. I should say from the outset that I have little knowledge of Turner, I could not tell you of his life and only know the most basic of facts about his body of work. However, I still went along to the film with great expectations. It has been critically praised and Timothy Spall took the prize for Best Actor at Cannes.
It is with Timothy Spall that I feel this review has to start, for whatever else this film may contain, it without a doubt contains a masterclass of a performance from the man. His portrayal of Turner is a constant contradiction. At times he speaks like a poet, masterfully twisting words to get across his point, yet throughout the majority of the films, he grunts and mutters his way through conversations. Creating noises that are repellent to the ear. There is one particular scene of passion between him and his poor abused housekeeper, which is the first time in life I have ever felt the need to use the word rutting in relation to a sex scene. As a man who creates such wonderful works of art and can express himself in such elegant ways with great wit, he is also an incredibly vulgar individual. Spall is not the only one who puts in such a great performance however and Dorothy Atkinson deserves praise for her role as the aforementioned housekeeper. So obviously in love with Turner, yet treated horribly by him, she is a greatly sympathetic character. Atkinson manages to steal most of the scenes she is in, often with just a facial expression, as the pompous artists and art lovers around her wax lyrical about various pieces of work.
The art is of course the other biggest character in this film and Leigh has portrayed it in a way that brings it to life. Paintings can struggle on film, not being the most cinematic of things, but the cinematography throughout this movie changes that. Paintings will fade out into landscapes and to pinpoint the moment where one becomes the other is near impossible. Every shot feels like a work of art itself and it is one of the most beautiful pieces of film to be released this year.
Yet it also a flawed piece of work. For both of these things do not hide a film that it is hard to love. The plot weaves its way through Turner’s life and yet you never once feel you truly know the man. He wanders the countryside, going from place to place painting these masterpieces and yet you never truly understand why. You get glimpses at his past affairs, a previous mistress comes to him with their child and yet you never really understand why he turns his back on them, why he is unwilling to be a part of their lives. It lacks a flowing narrative to keep you hooked and at two and a half hours long, it often drags. For everything there is to appreciate in this film, there is also a coldness, a look at a life without ever really understanding what it is you are looking at.
All of this makes Mr. Turner a film that you can not help but admire, but I find it very difficult to love. There are moments that come close, for example there is humour here, most noticeably in the aforementioned housekeeper, but also in Turner. His timely grunts in response to questions and statements are often laugh out loud funny. However, it doesn’t do enough to have you truly fall in love with these characters. When all is said and done, you are left with a beautifully shot and wonderfully acted movie, but one that I feel will struggle to stick in the public’s imagination.