MR. TURNER (Dir. Mike Leigh, 2014)
Timothy Spall, best known as Peter Pettigrew aka Wormtail in the HARRY POTTER series, grunts, groans, and gropes his way through Mike Leigh’s 12th film, a biopic about 19th century English Romantic landscape painter, printmaker, and watercolor master J.M.W. Turner.
Spall’s seventh film with Leigh, which is the third period piece for the director (TOPSY TURVY, also featuring Spall, and VERA DRAKE were the others), concerns the final third of the controversial artist’s life during the very stuffy, snobby Victorian age.
Spall’s Turner, who we first see in silhouette on the horizon capturing the Dutch countryside on his canvas, spends his time between masterpieces tending to his ailing father (Paul Jesson), occasionally taking sexual advantage of his housekeeper/assistant (Dorothy Atkinson), and travelling to the English seaside village of Margate where he has a secret life loving his landlady (Marion Bailey).
There is also the matter of his extremely angry ex-mistress (Ruth Sheen) and their two grown-up daughters, who Turner neglects while telling others that he has no family.
Although intricately constructed and politely paced, the first half of the film can be a bit of a slog, but it’s worth sticking with as there are many rewards in the concluding chapters.
Although he pisses off the prissy critics of the day and even the Queen, Turner is presented as a misunderstood pioneer who foretold the abstract impressionalism movement of the early 20th century, was welcome to the invention of the camera, and is fascinated when his friend, scientist Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) shares with him her experiments with an optical prism.
It is clear throughout that Leigh, who wrote the screenplay, is not only attempting to recreate the era via immaculate costumes (which got an Oscar nom) and sets, but is also using the big screen as a canvas to recreate Turner’s paintings via Dick Pope’s vivid cinematography (which also got a well deserved nomination).
Leigh’s fine film also got a nomination, again deserved, for its score composed by Gary Yershon, which while restraining itself from the customary historical epic sweep, gives a gentle grace to some of the film’s greatly affecting quiet moments.
Spall’s performance is Oscar worthy itself, even if most people might only experience the grotesque grumbling of an ornery curmudgeon. The Shakespearean-trained actor brings both great pathos and an animalistic appetite to the role which is impossible to ignore – even though the Academy did. That Spall studied and actually learned to paint, much like Ed Harris did in POLLACK, no doubt enhances his very lived in portrayal.
MR. TURNER is a very pretty and witty, but it certainly is a trifle too lengthy. Many of its vignettes could be trimmed - the fact that it’s an hour into it before his father dies indicates how long it is before the movie gets going – and some of its shots, as beautiful as they are, could’ve been shorter.
But overall, it’s the best of the British Oscar bait biopics out this season (take that, THE IMITATION GAME and THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING!). It will most be appreciated by Leigh fans, and those who love movies about art and artists. As I’m a big fan of both of those myself, you can see where I stand.