This year’s Cannes Film Festival saw “Mr Turner,” Mike Leigh’s newest feature, competing for the Palme d’Or with Timothy Spall starring as the eminent English artist of the film’s title. After over 150 years following his death, the renowned British painter J. M. W Turner’s life has been put on the big screen for us all to experience, thanks to great British filmmaker Mike Leigh (“Secrets & Lies,” “Vera Drake”). Leigh s depiction of the life of the painter is represented beautifully in “Mr. Turner” and is portrayed with such passion, like an ode to the man drawn upon a blank canvas, displaying the kind of rule-breaking rebellion of filmmaking that Turner himself likely would be particularly pleased with.
Leigh paints a stunning and complex portrait of the artist’s later years, allowing us brief glimpses into his complicated affairs and difficult relationships he picked up along the way; whether it’s with fellow painters or even his own maidservant (Dorothy Atkinson), whom Turner is more than happy to sexually exploit when it suits him.
The film serves to give us a short snapshot of the life of this great figure as he goes throughout the years, though perhaps the transitions of time aren’t as smooth or even as subtle as they could have been. That said, it is the small moments in between that give the whole picture an air of dimension and atmosphere.One such moment presents Turner (Spall) enthused by a moving piano piece, another sees him voluntarily tied the mast of a ship during an terrible snowstorm (a very real event), and later on we even witness him adjusting to the new, alien invention of the still camera. Initially they may not seem like much, but they are wonderfully refreshing in that they ground the movie, when such events could have so easily been exaggerated for a far more dramatic effect. Thus, Leigh has managed to craft something bold yet stunningly human at the same time.
At the forefront of Leigh’s ambitious work are two very important men, the first of which is Spall giving a simply fantastic performance with his communication mainly formed by murmurs and grumbles. His Turner is a lewd, yet strangely sympathetic man whose unconventional and cynical view of the world potentially creates more enemies than friends. Those such as fellow painter Benjamin Hayden (Martin Savage), who becomes obligated to Turner after he borrowed some money and is eventually more needy than he is a real friend. On top of this we have bitter former lover Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) who continuously and consistently tries to pester Turner in order for him to acknowledge his illegitimate children. That is not to say that Spall’s Turner is not subject to some real human emotion, far from it, as his love for his father (Paul Jesson) is abundantly clear and truly heartfelt. When personal tragedy strikes and shatters his self-esteem, Turner’s subsequent sobbing is remarkably uncomfortable to watch and listen to, but at the same time a wonderfully moving example of some raw human emotion.
Cinematographer Dick Pope creates a truly rich and vibrant atmosphere that honestly looks as though it came straight out of a Turner painting; with deep, warm hues of orange and brown splashed throughout. For instance, the opening shot presents a triumphant-looking windmill beside a beautiful orange sunrise, and after a pan of the landscape involving a pair of nattering milkmaids, we see Turner himself sketching and scrutinizing the scene before like an observant bird of prey. The shot suggests beauty in and of itself, but Pope’s stunning visual work is what helps to elevate it to something of real splendor with his use of lighting and composition. Throughout the rest of the film his cinematography is consistently spectacular, creating a series of wondrous images whether we are in the countryside or within a grand hall of art with canvas upon canvas adorning the walls.
This is a film, however, that requires a lot of patience from its audience, especially with a 149 minute run time and lack of concrete plot. It seeks to present to us a life as it naturally plays out rather than the kind of film narrative that we are used to, and those who are expecting something with a lot of focus, relentless drama, and a fast paced plot may be somewhat disappointed. However, “Mr. Turner” more than makes up for that by portraying a very intimate and heartfelt look at an incredibly complex yet brilliant man, which Mike Leigh and his team present to the world on a magnificently detailed and extravagant canvas.Continue Reading Issue #31
December 19, 2014 (limited)
2 hr. 30 min.
Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey