Mr. Turner

Mr. Turner photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn Mike Leigh’s world, artist J. M. W. Turner (Timothy Spall) is a buffoon. An uncouth slob who grunts when he’s content and grunts when he’s despondent. An unpleasant beast that possessed a lot of skill but wielded it much in the same way a laborer would paint the walls of a room, with little care for passion or joy. The usual road for a biography such as this would be to present the master as a hero and tempt the audience with his impressive level of talent. There is no question in my mind that Turner was a genius in real life. I’ve seen his art. I knew this going in. What I was expecting was a deeper appreciation for the artist’s craft, technique or style. Oh you silly silly critic, I thought 75 minutes, merely halfway, into this interminable slog. This is a Mike Leigh movie. When has the director ever done what is expected? Unless of course it’s pitching a meandering chronicle with little plot or purpose. Then he sticks to the blueprint with rigid tenacity.

Mike Leigh’s filmmaking method is legendary. His lack of structure is pure catnip to those who worship at the altar of non conformity. In some circles, I suppose that’s the highest compliment I can pay – it’s a Mike Leigh production. The director has long been the cultural zenith for people who hate films that adhere to the norms of storytelling like having a climax or being like, ya know, interesting. Perhaps the lack of preparation has been exaggerated into more of a myth by now. No script. No order. Just a discussion with the actors on where to take the characters. The “story” will happen organically as the actors interact. Only after these improvised acting exercises does the narrative take shape. At least one would hope it comes together. As far as I’m concerned the jury is still out on that.

Mr. Turner spotlights the painter’s final quarter century of life when his more experimental side was being explored. He’s already in his 50s at the beginning of this tale. Leigh’s aim is to offer little vignettes in Turner’s life that almost subvert the traditional biopic. To Leigh’s credit, he doesn’t elevate his subject, so I guess that’s unexpected in a drama detailing the work of a great artist. The director’s focus is to wallow in the depths of a boorish clown – a man more inspired to shag his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) than to paint great works of art. His biography could hardly be used as a way to learn about the man. An array of historical figures are paraded before the camera with no regard for establishing who they are or why they‘re important. I learned more information from the first paragraph of Turner’s Wikipedia article than I did from this nearly three hour film. But for those who like some facts, Turner is a preeminent British painter, “the painter of light” noted for his gorgeous landscapes. The production’s biggest merit is the cinematography where several cinematic vistas are captured that do convey the picturesque subjects Turner paints. Unfortunately most of Mr. Turner is a limp portrait presenting a repulsive man that happened to create transcendent art. If that’s Mike Leigh‘s idea of an ironic joke, I’m not laughing.


20 Responses to “Mr. Turner”

  1. Not seen this: So many have praised it to th skies, bt I reckon it will be – as u say – an interminable slog.
    Never mind: Happy New Year Mark!


  2. Good review Mark. Leigh has his own style and believe it or not, it works well here. Not just because Turner has an interesting life, but because he sort of mirrors Leigh’s own life and pleasures.


  3. This is definitely one of your best reviews here, Mark. Loved it. Now I feel better about the fact that this movie’s not playing nearby me.


  4. Very amusing review, although it sounds like the movie could use some of that. I was debating on checking Mr. Turner out actually, but it would appear I made the smart decision to skip it and go for Inherent Vice.


  5. Yeah, I think the main thing about the movie for me was the cinematography, which was excellent.


  6. This had some very beautiful scenery, but that’s it. I was bored to death. 2 stars


  7. Even from the trailers for Mr. Turner it seemed like Spall would be doing little more than grunting all the time. I think the lack of organization from a plot standpoint in this movie would drive me nuts since story tends to be an important element for me to appreciate a film. “The director’s focus is to wallow in the depths of a boorish clown – a man more inspired to shag his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) than to paint great works of art.” -That part of the movie would bother the heck out of me as well. Even if it was a part of his life, Leigh could have taken some artistic license with it to change it for the better.


  8. Nice review! I didn’t like this much either. It was a well crafted film but I just didn’t get anything out of it.


    • I’m surprised it got 4 Oscar nominations. Granted they were all for technical categories but Interstellar didn’t get a cinematography nomination, Belle didn’t get a nomination for Costumes, and Maleficent didn’t get a production design nomination.


  9. Good review.. and you’re right..I would’ve liked to have seen more of the ‘artistry’ of Turner considering Spall spent 2 yrs. preparing for the role learning how to paint in his style. And yes, waaaaay too long. 🙂


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