Starring: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Karl Johnson
Written for the screen and directed by: Mike Leigh
Metacritic Score: 96
IMDb Score: 6.9
Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography (Dick Pope), Best Costume Design, Best Production Design and Best Original Score
Rated R for some sexual content.
Mike Leigh is a fascinating, if not exasperating, filmmaker. His method of creating a movie: not having an initial script and having longer than usual rehearsals so that the actors can improvise and create their characters in a more organic sense, results in some of the most heart wrenching (Secrets and Lies) and scarring films (Naked).
It’s also because of this that his films are considered more “high-brow” or one of the more difficult filmmakers to really appreciate or enjoy. Clearly, to watch a Mike Leigh film, you need to know what makes his film’s unique from the on-set.
Mr. Turner is not any different. Correction: For a Mike Leigh film, it’s something utterly different.
The movie chronicles the last 25 years of artist J.M.W. Turner (Spall) from his time of popularity to the time of which cameras were being used.
There’s something about the film Mr. Turner that makes this film difficult to properly evaluate and to discuss with a modicum of intelligence. One reason has already been stated: Mike Leigh, the writer and director, approaches his films very differently than most directors, so his films already have a unique and off-kilter feel to it from the onset.
Another reason is the subject itself: English Romanticist artist J.M.W. Turner. Unless you are really big into the arts of the 1800s or painting in general (which, admittedly, I’m not), the film itself will be hard to actually grasp. It’s not that it’s a difficult or complex film: it’s just a film that has no set plot that beats through the movie.
Here’s the feeling you get from watching Mr. Turner as someone who has no knowledge of the painter: that this film reminds me heavily of the film The Horse’s Mouth.
OK, I know I’ve lost a ton of you with that comparison, since few know of the movie with Alec Guinness (and fewer know of the book), so let me come up with something…better.
Both films deal with the quirks of a particular person who is peculiar, weird, but known fully for being a genius of art. Both films have characters that are not only unattractive; they are actually not great to observe or be around. Both films tackle the subject of art in nearly the same way: both as inspirational and destructive, all at once.
The film Mr. Turner does one particular thing different that is thoroughly enjoyable, even if you don’t know the artist it’s talking about: the film feels like a compilation painting coming to life in front of you. Not just in a metaphorical sense: there are scenes in this film that are so gorgeous to watch, they feel like real classical paintings come to life (but not in a fake, CGI-way like What Dreams May Come).
Dick Pope, the cinematographer of the film, does an amazing job with the lighting and mood of the film. Everything in the film feels like it’s been carefully constructed for each and every moment. Even incidental scenes of Turner walking on streets and inside of a room just have a feel of consideration that makes the film feel like it’s taken years to create and cultivate.
Honestly, I feel like just putting tons of photos from the film to just show exactly how beautiful the film is. Obviously, the film is trying to create a world that show the inspiration of Turner and his creations. Weirdly enough though, the film doesn’t really show a lot of his works, unless you truly know of his works and how the film implements the look of these paintings.
Of course, the realization of this is only apparent if you’ve seen his paintings or know some knowledge of the painter itself. But watching the film without, there was still a feeling of stillness and splendor that the film exudes. You just know you’re watching something beautiful and striking, but you are just not sure exactly why it is.
The cast in this film is excellent, especially Spall as the artist Turner. Spall creates a vibrant, wholly realistic character that feels lived in and expressive. Every facial expression, snort, mannerism, mumble: everything doesn’t feel forced or “acted”; it feels absolutely natural, which is astonishing to watch in this movie.
The most difficult part of figuring this film out is Mike Leigh’s true contribution to the film. This is not a statement of saying the film didn’t need Leigh; no, this is ostensibly a Mike Leigh film through and through. His filmmaking method seems to get a more authentic feel from his actors, which is true from this film.
Where his directing prowess was known in Secrets and Lies and Topsy-Turvy, the feeling is less so in this film. This could very well be because of the decision to just document the last 25 years of Turner’s life, which at first was an interesting concept, but in execution, seems to be just window dressing to an extent.
Again, not exactly a bad thing. The fact that the “gimmick” or “framework” of the film isn’t the strength but the foundation is great: most films use the framework as the basis of the entire story. Mr. Turner uses it’s timeline merely as progression: in most bio-pics it’s used as a main plot device.
There really aren’t any plot devices in Mr. Turner; the film just goes about its time breathing, which is surprisingly great. Letting the film live and breathe as it is gives the artistic form of the look and feel of the film that makes it so refreshing and different.
But how to rate the film? The film doesn’t even try to help you understand the subject the film is about. In bio-pics, that’s a huge problem that even good movies do. But to devote 2 1/2 hours of a film and learn next to nothing of the subject, except for a crucial and key detail: the film lets you feel the paintings of the man itself.
It’s a tough recommend, honestly. You need to come into the film with a few things in tow: the understanding that there is no plot, that the movie is long, that it doesn’t give you any real information about the artist and that the film doesn’t run like most movies.
But, if you are open to watching something different, Mr. Turner not only is worth a watch, it’s worth a deep dive study afterwards.
It’s strange: never before have I watched a movie then wanted to learn so much more about what I just watched.
4/5 – Spall is excellent; Cinematography is astounding to look at.
The Wiz Says #32