Directed by: Mike Leigh
Premise: A biographical story of the British painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), focusing on his sometimes eccentric behavior and his relationship with innkeeper Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey).
What Works: Mr. Turner is a biographical story taking place in eighteenth century England and the picture possesses a gritty realism that contrasts with the beauty of the paintings created by the title character. The rough detail of the film is one of its outstanding qualities. Movies typically portray the past as a simple place in which people were more refined and even the poor carried on in lives that were happier and more moral than they are today. The filmmakers of Mr. Turner don’t buy into that and the vision of the past that they’ve created on screen is full of characters who are flawed and sophisticated and even the well-off struggle to survive. The makeup, costuming, and set design have an organic quality to them; the movie feels very lived in and the imagery often has a lot of grimy texture. This is especially true of Turner’s live-in maid, played by Dorothy Atkinson, who has a skin condition that gradually gets worse over the course of the film and the moviemakers make no effort to pretty her or the rest of the cast in the way that Hollywood historical dramas typically do. Mr. Turner also has a lot of humor in it. It’s very English humor and a lot of it is subtle but it is there and the humor makes the characters accessible. Timothy Spall plays J.M.W. Turner and his performance is a great piece of acting. Part of what is great about Spall is that he isn’t typical leading man material; he does not have movie star good looks and Spall does not try to be the statuesque lead actor. Instead, Spall shuffles and grumbles his way through the movie, a bit like a silent movie star, and yet with a minimum of traditional actorly moments he is still able to fully convey the character. Marion Bailey plays Sophia Booth, an innkeeper who becomes Turner’s wife, and Bailey has a very sweet rapport with Spall. As a movie set in the past, it is incumbent on the filmmakers to connect the past with the present and viewers who watch closely will find that Mr. Turner has a lot of relevance to the contemporary art world. Throughout his career, Turner combats critics and popular opinion as he tries to do new things with his paintings. The movie also includes several scenes that dramatize the tensions between art and commerce and the way old art forms and their artisans are threatened by new technologies; in this case, painting risks being overcome by photography. These themes make Mr. Turner accessible to a contemporary audience and they give the drama some greater meaning.
What Doesn’t: Mr. Turner was directed by Mike Leigh, a filmmaker who does not adhere to typical narrative filmmaking styles. The movie does not play out in a way that audiences expect from a mainstream motion picture nor does it establish an antagonist and a conflict to be overcome. Leigh is more of a behaviorist than a storyteller and Mr. Turner is really a character study. With that behavioral emphasis, the acting in Mr. Turner is much more subtle and naturalistic. The characters tend to speak in a slurred mumble, especially Timothy Spall as Turner, and viewers have to listen closely to deduce what’s being said. The lack of a clear narrative and the naturalistic performances are certainly going to limit the appeal of Mr. Turner and mainstream viewers may be confused by it. The filmmakers attempt to reconstruct a time period and the people in it and they successfully do that. But Mr. Turner also keeps the audience at a distance and the movie is more of an intellectual experience than an emotional one.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, a deleted scene, and trailers.
Bottom Line: Mr. Turner is a terrifically made film in regard to its cinematography and production design and it has a terrific performance by Timothy Spall. It may not be a movie for mainstream audiences but that shouldn’t be held against it.
Episode: #546 (June 14, 2015)