Review: Mr. Turner (2014)

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Director: Mike Leigh
Screenwriter: Mike Leigh
Cast: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Jesson, Marion Bailey, Ruth Sheen, Sandy Foster, Lesley Manville & Martin Savage
Runtime: 150 min // Certificate: 12a

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GKlo2xWvuI]

An ominous spectre hangs over Mr Turner – the latest effort from renowned British director Mike Leigh (Abigail’s Party) – like a noose around the frail neck of even the most ardent cinephile; its runtime. Clocking in at 150 minutes, Mr Turner is Leigh at his most indulgent and his most unashamedly middle-class, and if you’re not a big fan of quaint period dramas or uncritical biopics then no amount of dry humour or majestic cinematography will make the endurance test that is his take on the final years of British painter J. M. W. Turner’s life any less tiresome.

Set in the last half-century of the titular character’s life, Leigh’s film examines Turner’s successes, his failures, and his personal life, inviting an audience who probably know next to nothing about one of the greatest painters of all time (name recognition was about as far as my knowledge of the man stretched) to sit back and indulge in a little middle-class exorbitance. Played by Timothy Spall (Secrets & Lies, also written and directed by Mike Leigh), who powers through the film like a boar, snorting, grunting and huffing his way through the artist’s many ups and downs, Turner is portrayed as a genius, a visionary, and a bit of a bastard. No surprises there then.

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Leigh views Turner’s work through the perspective of an artist, and that is his film’s great success. For all of Mr Turner’s missteps (which I shall explore in more detail momentarily), it is doubtless one of the most visually and aesthetically stunning films of the year, so positively brimming is it with the most exquisite and awe-inspiring use of landscaping and cinematography. Leigh, like Turner, is a master of his craft, and each laborious, painstaking dab of the brush is matched only by Leigh’s effortless grasp of how to elevate a simple shot, sequence or scene into the realms of the most magnificent artistry. Just as Spall, in the titular role, attacks his easel and palette with all the fury of a man completely possessed by his work, Leigh uses his skills as a filmmaker to lift Turner’s work off the canvas and place it onto the screen for his audience to devour. The effect is, to put it lightly, absolutely dizzying.

Alas, where the film falls down is in its rather perfunctory storytelling. As I said at the beginning, this is a film that rumbles on for 150 minutes, and I’d be lying if I said you won’t feel every single one of them. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing. There are numerous moments when Mr Turner is every bit as dramatic, harrowing and thrilling as a great Summer blockbuster, and you’ll be thankful for those as they help drag things out of the lull that Leigh’s shallow, uncritical screenplay often drives his story into, but like so many modern films that exceed the two-hour mark, this is one that is in serious need of a decent editor. Whole scenes pass by without leaving even the most rudimentary effect on either the characters or the narrative, as Leigh hugely overindulges his appreciation for Turner’s craft. Secondary characters come and go, plot points and critical moments fall by the wayside, and key moments that are supposed to elicit powerful reactions from the audience instead slip by in the distance, almost as though they are an afterthought.

The problem, then, is that Leigh loves and admires Turner just a little too much. He tackles the last 25 years of the man’s life in chronological order, focussing on critical and influential events, the most famous masterpieces, and Turner’s deteriorating health, but he never really digs deep enough into the man’s complex and crotchety personality to justify the film’s ludicrous runtime. Clearly influenced by Peter Shaffer’s depiction of Salieri in Amadeus (one sequence, set in a small theatre, feels like it’s been lifted directly from that far superior film), Leigh occasionally portrays Turner as a bit of a brute and a cad, but he does so with such indifference that one never really gets a proper feel for what Turner was actually like. It’s all rather formulaic, like a traditional biopic, which is fine, but it feels far too quaint for a director with such a rich back catalogue of harsh realist dramas under his belt as Mike Leigh.

Nonetheless, Mr Turner is a wonderful tribute to a true master of his form, and I think Leigh has built up just enough credibility over the years to get away with creating something as fanciful and light as this. As vanity pieces go, it’s up there with the better of them, and Leigh still manages to lace his screenplay with just enough wit and poignancy to see him and his audience through to the end. Ever the master of dry, awkward comedy, Leigh has some fun toying with the conventions and eccentricities of early Victorian England, poking fun at the aristocracy (who Turner is portrayed as holding in cynical contempt) and indulging in some surprisingly heightened slapstick clowning around.

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The success of moments like this rests almost entirely on the shoulders of Timothy Spall, who proves once again why he is one of the greatest actors of his generation. Spall plays Turner with a sort of grimy charm, blundering from one scene to the next. In an instant he can shift from an evocative portrayal of Turner engrossed in his work to a hilarious and heart-warming conversation with his Father (Jesson; Vera Drake, again written and directed by Leigh…) and back again. Though there’s a hint of award-hunting to Spall’s performance at times, particularly in the more dramatic moments, he is undoubtedly a striking screen presence and he helps to keep a film that often threatens to go off the rails entirely both enjoyable and engaging.

Mr Turner is far from Leigh’s best film, and it doesn’t do anything to warrant its 150 minute runtime. Nevertheless, it’s still an enjoyable and rewarding experience that survives primarily on the back of superb performances across the board and a clear and genuine passion on the part of Leigh, whose partnership with Spall is as strong as ever. This might not be their best work, but it’s still a fine piece of filmmaking, and I hope to see them collaborate on many more projects in the years to come.

★★★½

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