Based on the latter years of the infamously eccentric 19th century painter’s life, Mr. Turner is a biographical look into the mind of a master artist whose ability to capture the beauty of the world was unmatched at the time. J.M.W. Turner was one of Britain’s greatest landscape artists, and his dreamy, murky, almost surreal-like paintings of seascapes and storms became his trademark stamp on the history of Romantic art. In this biopic directed and written by Mike Leigh (Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year), we watch as a mature-aged Turner at the height of his career comes to grips with the death of his father, stirs controversy amongst the art community, falls in love, battles the demons of his past and the diseases of his present; everything that made Turner the wild, erratic and passionate man that he was.
At the centre of every good biopic there must be an interesting and well-developed character played by an equally matched actor, and in this case Turner is depicted magnificently by Timothy Spall, who most will recognise as Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter films. Spall delivers on every level in Mr. Turner, to the point where you are no longer watching someone acting a character, but simply being that character. Spall seems to morph every molecule of his being to mimic that of Turner; the good, the bad, to the ugly. Turner is for the most part a generally unlikable character, wheezing, grunting and hacking away on screen to the point where you can almost smell a musty mixture of paint and body odour wafting across the cinema. But beneath that, he is a deeply intriguing character, whose arrogance masks a certain vulnerability and whose painting style would still manage to turn heads even today.
This is the kind of special thing that can happen when an actor and a director become so invested in bringing a character to life. Despite having lived some 200 years ago, Mike Leigh has developed this incredibly layered and ‘real’ character, and then made sure that Spall did everything he could to capture the essence of Turner, including two years of art classes by the end of which Spall could paint with the same aggressive vigour that Turner could. I must admit I did find Turner’s flawed, crude and a little bit cringe-worthy demeanor rather uncomfortable at times, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the amazing work both Leigh and Spall injected into this one man.
But it isn’t all about Turner, and supporting actresses Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey are both outstanding as the women in Turner’s life. Equally magnificent is the sweeping cinematography by Dick Pope, which emulates Turner’s style so accurately that at times you don’t know whether you’re looking at a painting or the real thing.
Mr. Turner was met by rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival, including awards for both Timothy Spall and Dick Pope, but I do believe this film will attract a certain breed of audience while alienating others. Those interested in art and period dramas will devour Mr. Turner, but for those who like more action in their movies, this could be a little bit of a drag. The two and a half hour run time feels just that long, and a lot of the film moves very slowly; however there are some fantastically humorous and engaging scenes that will keep most viewers on board for the duration of the movie.
And yet, what the movie lacks in plot it makes up for in incredible filming, directing and acting, and with Oscar buzz circulating around Spall’s performance, Mr. Turner is definitely one of the must-see films of the year.
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