Sometimes as ugly and pathetic as the character himself.
Movie Review #1,011
Sony Pictures Classics
Biography, Drama, History
2 hours, 30 minutes
Rated R (some sexual content)
Released February 20, 2015
Directed by Mike Leigh
Written by Mike Leigh
Starring Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Ruth Sheen, Sandy Foster, Amy Dawson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Tom Edden, and Jamie Thomas King
Something feels incredibly different about this film. “Mr. Turner” depicts its titular subject–genius and auteur J. M. W. Turner, respected almost universally as Britain’s greatest painter–as a buffoon. The kind of man who doesn’t need a drop of scotch to seem like a complete drunk. He does basically three things throughout the movie. He observes his surroundings, his face perpetually resembling that of a pug waiting for bacon to topple from the table. He has sex with his mistress as a pug would, too. It’s not the fact that these scenes are graphic but that they’re discomforting to watch that earns the film its R rating. The other thing he does, of course, is paint. According to director Mike Leigh, the man did his magic by holding a paintbrush in front of a canvas, as he’d wave around his arms like he was trying to conduct Beethoven in double-time while simultaneously hungover. I highly doubt this is how the real Mr. Turner painted his work. And if it was, then just imagine the kind of legend he’d be if he actually cared about his art. Granted, I’m sure the real Turner had a passion for art. For whatever reason, though, that simple truth isn’t something Mike Leigh finds appealing. Lately, it’s been a trend to reveal the dark side of an artist in his biopic. Mike Leigh does that and more. In fact, he goes so far into Turner’s dark side that we forget he’s an actual artist, and we begin to suspect that Leigh hates him.
Timothy Spall gives the performance of a lifetime as the character, though. He captures the oafish, self-involved, and yet talented character stunningly. He ingrains Turner’s odd mannerisms, his gruff cockney accent, his low, slurred speech patterns, into our minds. He and the rest of the superb cast are compensation for Leigh’s dishonorable handling of the movie. I need not say more on his depiction of Turner, which trades of a modest lack of glamor for an utterly distasteful portrait. There’s more to his poor direction than merely that, though, and perhaps the film is doomed simply because of who’s directing it. Leigh is infamous for using virtually no script. I’m going to be honest here. I have seen movies that were fully improvised, and some good ones. None of them, however, had established actors, none of them ran two and a half hours, and none of them were high-concept biopics. I have now seen a movie that fits those three components, but I still have yet to see one that actually succeeds in doing so. “Mr. Turner” feels aimless because of the constant improv. It’s good, but it needed a script. The film covers the last 25 years of Turner’s life, and you’d expect that time would entail something important. He becomes terminally ill, he has sex a lot, he tries many times to beat the shit out his canvas with his paintbrush, and he watches his surroundings for inspiration quite a bit. If any of that counts.
The aura of the film is what saves it, though. “Mr. Turner” starts out with a curious long shot of Turner atop a mountain, sketching two men in the valley below him. This is our first glimpse of the awesome 35mm cinematography that gives the film a majestic quality. Cue the opening sequence, which steadily begins to present a Turner painting in the background, in the shape of wafting smoke. Set that to a piece by Gary Yershon that sounds exactly as if it were from the Romantic Era. (His score throughout the rest of the film is as great, though remarkably understated.) The word “curious” applies here, for certain. “Mr. Turner” gets curiouser and curiouser from the moment it lures us down the rabbit hole with its contemplative opening shot. Curious isn’t always a good thing, though. It’s curious why Turner is such a pig. It’s curious why we’re supposed to care about his art if he himself doesn’t. It’s curious why Mike Leigh chose to portray the artist in the first place. I’m not saying that glorifying a well-known figure is the only option out there, but if you happen to believe that sodomizing an artist’s tale is a better alternative, then please, Mr. Leigh, never make a movie about someone whose stature you cannot touch, ever again.