Film Review: Mr Turner

tunerAlthough a graduate of art school, I have very little knowledge or even interest in the work of romantic landscape painter JMW Turner, let alone his life. I also usually baulk at the sight of a top hat on TV. However, I was keen to see what British director Mike Leigh and longtime collaborator Timothy Spall had created amidst considerable critical buzz. Luckily, ‘Mr Turner’ isn’t your usual run of the mill period biopic. Leigh uses Turner as a vehicle to explore the human condition. And a slightly pessimistic view thereof. Major touch points such as grief, self-worth, religion, science and class are covered. A culmination also of regular themes in Leigh’s work to date, with more than a smattering of social-led comedy for which he is best known. Here is a biopic of an historical figure that doesn’t limit itself by simply trudging chronologically through documents and stale accounts of the time, but instead turns inwardly on the artist and his view of humanity, art and his place as an artist in the twilight of a successful career. This is possibly ‘Mr Leigh’ by any other name. Spall plays Turner as a bear of a man, befitting the duality of a character who seems both a grounded humanist and cruel narcissist. Idiomatic grunts, grumbles and snarls serve to portray a cantankerous guarded genius of few words and deep emotions. It is testament to his performance that so much is conveyed by so little. A performance that has already been rewarded with a deserved Best Actor gong at Cannes. On the rare occasion when Turner does let down his guard, the impact is multiplied. A scene in which he deals with his grief by sketching a prostitute is as intense, personal and uncomfortable a piece of film as you are likely to see all year. As well as Spall, cinematographer Dick Pope was also honoured at Cannes for his meticulous work on the film. Shooting digitally, a first for Pope and Leigh, enabled precise control over colour in post production, key to presenting the film in the palette of the artist’s paintings. Such acceptance of new technology is neatly mirrored by Turner during a scene in which he stoically embraces the advantages of photography in image capture. Running in at 150 minutes, the film is something of a minor opus. Long not always by necessity but by choice. This is exemplified by a protracted opening sequence that deals very much in dim light and silence, serving to take us out of whatever frantic activity had occupied our day and invites us to wallow in the lyrical poise of Leigh’s filmmaking. The languid shuffling of Spall’s Turner. And the altogether more sedate pace of the period. Although episodic and lengthy, the film rarely becomes wearisome. The structure is almost akin to a series of short stories with wry pay-offs. When plot points and characters are returned to, they are mostly greeted as you would an old friend. Having said this, it’s perhaps not a film you feel the need to revisit immediately. Even though affection for it increases the more you run its complexities through your mind. It isn’t without its flaws; the exploration of Turner’s housekeeper teases but fails to satisfy, much like his treatment of her. However, this doesn’t dampen a film which is immersive and rewarding. Epic and intimate. Tragic and comic. It’s a study of light and dark of which even JMW Turner would be proud. 8/10 James Hobson