“The sun is God! Ha ha ha!”
Shamefully I have to admit that this was the first time I watched a Mike Leigh film despite all the critically acclaimed films he has directed in the past. Neither did I know anything about the life of British painter, JMW Turner, whom this film was based upon, so I actually went into this movie with no prior knowledge of anything about Mr. Turner. I can’t say the film was an illuminating experience either because the biopic doesn’t really introduce us to the character of Turner. The film takes off during the painter’s late years when he was an already established painter in 1800’s Victorian society. Leigh focuses on the character of Turner and how contradictory his own life seemed to be. This isn’t your average biopic, which is a good thing because it avoids all the typical clichés of the genre, but rather more of a character study of a brilliant painter who seemed to struggle with his relationships and his role in society. My major complain with Mr. Turner revolves around the tedious and slow pacing of the film. The film never justifies its 150 minute screen time and I know I would’ve enjoyed this a lot more if it were cut around the 100 minute mark. What Mr. Turner does achieve extremely well is capturing the period beautifully with gorgeous set designs and breath taking cinematography. Not only did Leigh have to recreate the artwork in the film, but also capture the landscape in the same way that it inspired Turner’s paintings, and he does so masterfully. That along with the spot on Victorian dialogue and strong performances are the highlight of a film that left me wishing the pacing hadn’t been so tedious. Mr. Turner is a film much easier to respect than to actually enjoy, but if you are a fan of period pieces you will appreciate it.
Timothy Spall is without a doubt the highlight of the film. His performance as Mr. Turner is solid and well deserving of his Cannes win. He should be nominated for the Oscars. As strong as his performance was, I still found if very difficult to understand what he was saying. His character grunts throughout the entire film, kind of like the way I was grunting during the tedious and slow pacing of the film. Mr. Turner isn’t a character we can engage with because despite of his artistic craft he was a deeply flawed person who refused to recognize his wife and daughters, had a strange relationship with his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), and another more approachable relationship with a widow named Booth (played by Marion Bailey). Both Atkinson and Bailey give strong secondary performances, but it is Atkinson who has the most demanding scenes. She deserves as much recognition as Spall is receiving for Mr. Turner. As strong as the performances are, I had a hard time understanding some of the dialogue in this film. Going into it without any prior knowledge of who Turner was probably affected my viewing experience as well because it took me awhile to understand what was happening. Mr. Turner is worth the watch for the gorgeous cinematography, but I find it hard to recommend due to the pacing. There are a few scenes that did work for me like the one where Turner is introduced to how the camera works. It is an important scene because it reflected the change that was to come and Turner realized how it could become a new art form able to reproduce the landscape better than his own paintings. The highlight of the film however is seeing how Leigh manages to recreate the scenery of Turner’s painting and the way he is able to gorgeously capture the landscape through his lens. Unfortunately the film was long and tedious so I can’t really recommend it despite everything that it has going for it.