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Non-Review Review: Mr. Turner

Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner is a stunningly beautiful naturalistic period piece. It is a little messy and unfocused, indulgent and uneven, but such is life itself. Covering the life of J.M.W. Turner, Leigh takes an expansive look at the life of one of Britain’s most distinctive and influential painters. Mr. Turner is perhaps a little over-long and meandering, and occasionally just a little bit too sly for its own good, but it does feature a charmingly larger-than-life performance from Timothy Spall and fantastic cinematography from Dick Pope.

Portrait of the artist as Timothy Spall...

Portrait of the artist as Timothy Spall…

There is, appropriately enough, something very old-fashioned about Mr. Turner. Leigh draws from across the artist’s life in constructing this biography, sketching a portrait that spans decades. From the relationship between “Mister Billy” and his father through to his autumn years with Sophia Booth. Mr. Turner spares its audience too much armchair psychoanalysis and invites viewers to draw their own conclusions about the man.

It is very hard to impose a narrative arc on a life, a frequent problem for cinematic biographies. After all, life is so much messier than the conventional three act structure, and trying to fit a person’s life story into that structure cannot be anything but reductive. Wisely, Leigh never tries. He brings his trademark naturalism the film, offering a series of vignettes that are loosely tied together so as to offer a gallery of Turner’s life.

A work of art?

A work of art?

Mr. Turner is a film that seems to dance on the edge of a razor blade. It seems constantly at risk of collapsing into itself, occasionally straining and creaking as things feel a little too wry or indulgent. In a way, this makes the movie’s capacity for self-restraint all the more notable. Every time it feels like Mr. Turner might come crashing down, the film reigns itself back in. Every time it seems that its portrayal of the eponymous painter might be more interested in the myth, it teases us with a glimpse of the man.

There are points where it feels a little bit like a greatest hits compilation of biographical titbits. Remember that story about how Turner upstaged John Constable in 1832? Or the anecdote about how Turner tied himself to a ship’s mast in order to properly capture a snow storm? There are several points where the film seems to pause to reveal the secret origin of Turner’s masterpieces – he and his companions row past an old steamer being hauled away for scrap; he stares fascinated at a train in motion.

A brush with destiny?

A brush with destiny?

These sequences occasionally feel a little too cute, a little too laboured. Similarly, the obligatory exploration of the ridicule that Turner faced in his later years feels like it was shoehorned in to generate some measure of tension around the start of the third act. Scenes of Turner eavesdropping on members of the Royal Family pondering the state of his eyesight or attending a comedy show before realising that the joke is on him feel somewhat excessive.

Nevertheless, Mr. Turner creates a fascinating multifaceted portrait of its subject. Watching the film, it is easy to see why Leigh might have been so enamoured with Turner. At one point, Turner declines £100,000 for his collection of artwork. Instead, he plans to bequeath it to the National Gallery, so that the people of Britain might be able to see it “gratis.” One imagines that Leigh approves. Ever the wry gentlemen, Turner’s final moments find him chuckling heartily at an offhand piece of nonsense offered decades earlier.

A quiet study...

A quiet study…

Mr. Turner looks absolutely stunning. There the obligatory shots constructed so as to emphasis how Turner must have seen the world – appropriately enough, his work haunts the film. However, even mundane shots of Turner walking down the street or along the coast have a picturesque beauty to them. Mike Leigh and Dick Pope do great work crafting a magnificent piece of film. Mr. Turner looks stunning from beginning through to the end.

Of course, Timothy Spall sits comfortably at the centre of proceedings. Given the loose structure applied by Leigh, Mr. Turner lives or dies by way of Spall’s central performance. Spall casts Turner as a decidedly larger-than-life figure, as if contrasting with the finely calibrated world around him. As portrayed by Spall, Turner occasionally feels more like a character than a man – his tendency to make up or mispronounce words, his exaggerated swagger holding an umbrella, his ability to communicate entirely through grunts.

The old man and the sea...

The old man and the sea…

There are points where it seems like Mr. Turner might tip over – that Spall’s performance might grow a little too over-stated for the film around him. At those points, Spall is shrewd enough to dial the performance back. There is a deep reservoir of humanity to be found behind Spall’s over-the-top performance, a reassurance that Turner is very much a human being and not simply a bohemian personality. Mr. Turner is as strong as Spall’s performance. It is occasionally uneven, but always rights itself before damage is done.

Mr. Turner is perhaps a little over-long and a little bit too indulgent. Nevertheless, it is a very beautiful and affectionate look at the life of one of the most influential British artists of all time. It meanders and wanders a bit in places, but isn’t that what life is?

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