Mr. Turner (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Mr. Turner (2014)

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From the annals of art history comes a new biopic from director and screenwriter Mike Leigh.  Working with a sprawling cast starring Timothy Spall, he crafted a movie to examine the life of one J.M.W. Turner, a Romantic era painter and man of conflicting dispositions.

Studio gigglesConsidering the lackluster quality of most biopics, and 2014 had more than a few poor ones, it’s a wonder more influence is not drawn from the films of Mike Leigh. He hasn’t made many, only Topsy-Turvy really qualifies, but his creative method allows for his performers to live like their characters and discover what is the most interesting story to tell. Five minutes with any Leigh character and I feel like I know their history and can make interesting, but not always correct, predictions about what they will do next.

Mr. Turner finds Leigh returning to the biopic mold and while I was not as gripped by it as his other fictional efforts he still finds a way to wring great interest out of the painter’s life. He avoids cliché’s about where Mr. Turner found his inspiration for his work and instead positions the story in a way which imbues the audience with his curious flow. Leigh does not deserve all the credit and rightly so considering his famous collaborative approach to film making. So I wonder if it was the always excellent Timothy Spall who decided to tell Mr. Turner’s life with so many visceral qualities.

The nature photography in Mr. Turner is so lush and detailed I half-expected a natural breeze to waft from the projection.

The nature photography in Mr. Turner is so lush and detailed I half-expected a natural breeze to waft from the projection.

Examine the sight of the grieving Mr. Turner and the careful steps his housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) takes after his father (Paul Jesson) died. She walks quietly as though she’s trying not to disturb the need for consolation Mr. Turner desires in this moment of despair. What happens next is rape, pure and simple, as he takes Hannah without consent in a shot which makes this fact explicit. Does she cry, plead, or find another job? No, she finishes quietly tending to her business and is continues working the following days.

The ethics in Mr. Turner follow this path as they try to present the conditions of his life by the standards of the time instead of a modern-day lens. The result is an engaging alchemy in the contrast between Mr. Turner’s sometimes brutish and vile behavior with the gorgeous paintings he’s able to create. The cinematography from Dick Pope follows suit, creating a perpetually lush paradise for Spalls' shambling Mr. Turner to maneuver around. Pope’s work in Mr. Turner is as gorgeous as John Alcott’s photography for Barry Lyndon, as any frame of Mr. Turner could be paused and be a beautiful facsimile of one of Mr. Turner’s paintings.

This leads to some curious distancing between Mr. Turner, the beauty he can create, and the creative process.   Few scenes in Mr. Turner show the man at work and Leigh is content to follow Mr. Turner around his daily life instead of examining the creative process. But this serves as an interesting statement on the nature of art, artist, and audience as is illustrated in an excellent scene with Mr. Turner painting while young ladies giggle questions about his work. Leigh presents this entire moment through a distant lens with Mr. Turner and the ladies tiny figures in relation to the beauty of the light in his drawing-room. The implication of this moment, as Mr. Turner grunts terse replies to their inquiries, is the concerns of how and why art are created are of less importance than the fact that it is created at all.

This is why Mr. Turner is an interesting film, if not one I completely fell in love with. The period piece touches which liven up the background with economic and social details are the best parts of the movie, they’re just touches I enjoyed thinking about more than experiencing. There were sections of Mr. Turner which felt long, even the good bits involving his interactions with other artists and critics, and there were one too many shots of the awkward Mr. Turner on the move. I wasn’t bored, exactly, but aware of the slow pace of Mr. Turner. Others might find the steady crawl comparable to an artist with his easel at the canvas, but I found myself considering the time spent watching Mr. Turner over experiencing Mr. Turner more often than not.

The warmth between Mr. Turner and his father provides Leigh and Spall with some of the best moments.

The warmth between Mr. Turner and his father provides some of the best moments.

Still, this is a movie which stars the almighty Spall, so there was no chance I would be bored. It’s a brave performance even by his lofty standards as it tears down the pretensions of art in a series of emotional outbursts dripping with bodily fluids. He smacks and grunts, yells and cries, and gorges himself on life as much as he can. Spall throws himself into the monstrous aspects of Mr. Turner so thoroughly that it illuminates how he was able to paint so beautifully. When he was a monster he was callous and cruel, but when he was beautiful there was little else on Earth which could compare.

Those aren’t outright contradictions, but complications of a man who inflicted pain and pleasure to those he came into contact with. Mr. Turner isn’t content to distill his life into easily digestible tidbits of inspiration and beauty. What gorgeous photography we see is a calculated counterpoint to his messy life. I wasn’t always enthralled but frequently pleased and overall satisfied with Leigh’s presentation of this man’s messy existence.

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Tail - Mr. TurnerMr. Turner (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Mike Leigh.
Starring Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, and Marion Bailey.

Posted by Andrew

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