MR. TURNER. Starring: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, and Ruth Sheen. Directed by Mike Leigh. Rated M (Mature themes and sex scene). 150 min.
This biographical film lost to "Winter Sleep" for the Palme d'Or at the 2014 Cannes film Festival. It won Best Actor at Cannes for Timothy Spall, and was awarded the prize for Excellence in Directing for Mike Leigh at the 23rd. Britannia awards.
The movie explores the last quarter century of the life and paintings of Joseph Mallord William Turner (Timothy Spall ) who lived and painted from 1775 to 1851. Revered as one of Britain's finest painters, the film explores Turner's personality and contrasts it with the artistry of his work. In the film, Turner's paintings are displayed in glorious colour and detail.
Timothy Spall's performance as an ageing Turner cements his reputation as the greatest actor living in Britain today. His performance is a risky portrayal, but it succeeds. He presents Turner as a flawed person, who takes advantage of women who love him, visits brothels, has children he deserts, and sullenly confronts people not caring at all whether they like him as a person or not. He mistreats his house-keeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), who loves him compulsively, and he behaves cruelly toward his first mistress, Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) and lives incognito with his second, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey).
Despite his flaws, Turner's paintings capture landscapes and seascapes with delicacy, great beauty, and pictorial serenity. The film might have attempted to show a dramatic link between Turner's moral failings and the quality or nature of his paintings, but it doesn't. It chooses to expose us provocatively to the enormous contradiction between the man and his work. The foibles and oddness of Turner's personally in this film contrast dramatically and paradoxically with the vision and spectacle of his art, and the film presents a genius who lives at a considerable emotional distance from the beauty of his paintings. It is a story about an artist's creativity that sits intriguingly at odds with personal character.
The film is funny, thoughtful, and surprising. One is constantly left wondering how such beautiful paintings could be brushed by such a man. Timothy Spall grunts, spits, growls and wheezes his way through an amazing performance as J.M.W Turner.
Mike Leigh is the master of well-observed oddities that show humanity in its complexity. He is a Director who focuses on detail to show you what he considers necessary, and he uses intimate close-ups that display ugliness, if it helps to reveal the truth. Leigh presents a detailed portrait of a cantankerous man whose social graces contrast with the brilliance of his art, and he personalises material enough to show how greatness in art can nevertheless be inspired. In one scene,Turner straps himself high up to a ship's mast so that he can appreciate the turmoil of a snow-storm that is happening at sea; he needs to experience the snowstorm in that way in order to know how to paint it. Turner stays in towns just because he loves the pattern of the light they show, and appreciation of light is a special feature of the magnificence of his paintings.
The film's cinematography brings 19th. Century England vividly to life. Dick Pope, who was given an award for his work in this film, manages to photograph scenes as if they were paintings themselves. Scenes are wonderfully lit and patterned, just like Turner's paintings, showing that life away from Turner's actual paintings can be just as visually seductive. The whole film, in fact, is like a series of tableaux, flowing one into another.
This is a movie about a painter and not just about his work. It is the fifth time Spall and Leigh have worked together and it shows. Spall is convincingly real as Turner, and Leigh works particularly effectively with Spall to direct a film that does Turner and his Art proud.
Although Turner is anchored to his flaws by Timothy Spall, under Leigh's expert direction the film captures Turner's artistic genius extremely well. The film itself is like a work of Art.
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office of Film and Broadcasting
Sony Picture Classics
Released December 25th., 2014