Mr. Turner (UK/2014)
UK Release by Focus Features – 31st October 2014
Directed by Mike Leigh
Brief Synopsis: A portrait of J.M.W Turner’s life that chronicles various exploits and artistic endeavours.
Scene by scene Mr. Turner is exquisite in portrait and admirable in context. However, this does not make it compelling, rather the steady pacing and acts are underwhelming in their progression and execution. The drama is not as thirsty as one feels it should be; the cog driving the machine seems to be missing. To be even more disparaging, it could come under the category of a bit messy and predictable. Whilst many elements of the filmmaking process (design, costume etc.) are flawless and no doubt award winning, the character of Mr. Turner does not express the emotional range, which I’d hoped for from an artist, to carry this great spectacle. The performance by Timothy Spall is clearly engrossing of certain behaviours but only adequate in whole.
This is not a critique of Turner’s works of art, which are glorious and formidable, it is a critique of the non-apparent flexibility and miscellany of occurrence that should be prevalent in a mans life. It is not an easy film to pull apart, for it is most likely very accurate indeed and Mike Leigh, of course, has the masters’ touch. Yet, at two and a half hours long, the virtuosity and steady pacing run to the end of the line. I struggle to find another way to express my dissatisfaction, it is perhaps just one of those films you expect to be wholly great, but turns out just to be good.
Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner is grumpy, methodical and plain rude. This is not surprising of an artist, who must have their ups and downs, yet it ends here; there is no further insight into the man, he doesn’t let us in and perhaps that is more powerful for this picture. But, what about the touching spirit that brings out those raw brush strokes? Where is the life of this man who finds such inspiration? This critique may be more suited to Turner himself than Leigh’s film; I obviously cannot know this fact. What I do know, is that film is fortunate enough to be accepted and advantageously allowed to explicitly dramatise into fiction, and therefore I want to see an altogether noteworthy and enthusing character up there on the screen.
Turner’s fellow artists (Haydon, Constable, Eastlake, Soane et al.) bring together the most prosperous and exciting scenes with great wit and thought on display. Mark Stanley as Clarkson Stanfield is particularly amusing in his perceptive mode of sheer aristocratic persuasion. The vibrant lifestyle of the artists is eminent, yet once we are back with Turner it is only desolate, solemn and sexually frustrated. The housemaid is the primary asset of Turner’s desires; she is submissive and disarmingly played by Sandy Foster. The rest of the supporting cast rightly deserves a nod and Lesley Manville is noticeably in full swing to continue her extensive work with Leigh.
The cinematography by Dick Pope can be breathtaking and masterful; in particular the shots of Turner walking the hills at dawn with his little sketchbook. If only there were more of these intimate sequences with nature, which so dearly express where Turner’s vision lies and which showcase the beauty of the United Kingdom. Admittedly, they must have been very time-consuming shots, the weather being as unpredictable as it often is in the UK! The framing and composition is indeed flawless, but it is not always as powerful as one should hope. There just isn’t the reticence of cinematic language I feel could have been reached. It is another impressive work by Leigh, but I am sure he could have sharpened his brushwork.