by Brian Surber
Art is subjective. We see it how we choose. There is no correct way to feel about a work of art; the artists creates something, we observe and interpret. I think that’s how Mike Leigh made Mr. Turner. He took this man’s life as his canvas, he chose to show us the parts he felt needed to be shown, and presented it to us to decipher. Whether that completely works as a movie, I’m not quite so sure, but hey, that’s just how I feel about it.
The film tells the story of Joseph Mallord William Turner, a famous English Romanticist painter. Mr. Turner had a fond-ness for landscapes and shipwrecks, which he painted with a beautiful fervor. Personally, however, Mr. Turner was a very flawed individual. He had difficulty expressing his emotions, keeping them down and seemingly observing and painting beautiful pictures of sunsets and oceans to avoid confronting his feelings.
His paintings look as if he viewed them through a blurred lens. Shapes are faint and at times very unclear. The colors are vivid. His painting is obscured as is his outlook on life. His advances on women are almost ugly and vile but there are hints of great sadness. He isn’t sure how to handle himself or deal with his emotions. He makes bad decisions but not out of hate.
Mr. Turner himself is an incredibly interesting character and veteran character actor Timothy Spall captures him beautifully. Mainly known for his work in the Harry Potter films, Mr. Spall has never been given an opportunity like this before and he makes the most of it. His manner of speech, facial expressions, and quiet demeanor give Mr. Turner a potent three-dimensional quality. His flaws and successes are shown in every frame and decision. It’s a tour-de-force performance from someone who isn’t normally called on for such a thing. It’s a wonderful surprise to see Mr. Spall not only rise to the occasion but to flourish.
The film itself is stunningly shot. The cinematography by Dick “Poop” Pope is predictably painting-esque but I believe that works in the film’s favor. We see these exquisite shots of fields, hills, and oceans, coupled with the acts of a man who does irrational things to people who care about him. The film almost feels like one of Mr. Turner’s paintings. The production design is intricate in its detail and wondrous. The film is visually splendid to look at.
My main issue with the film lies in its pacing and Mike Leigh’s writing. Mr. Leigh, director of the excellent Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky, also wrote the script and it’s here where the film falls apart. Mr. Turner seemingly has no focus. The main conflict is unclear throughout and the film doesn’t spend enough time on any one specific supporting character. Too many characters are introduced and aren’t given the time to be explored to their full potential. The two standouts of the extensive supporting cast are Dorothy Atkinson as Mr. Turner’s extremely loyal housekeeper and Marion Bailey as his landlady and eventual lover. Both of whom are fascinating individuals who, I believe, aren’t given enough time to expand on just what makes them so interesting. This does not deter from the fact that both of these actresses give wonderful performances.
Mr. Turner runs just under two-and-a-half hours and while the film has scenes that are endlessly enjoyable – a scene with Mr. Turner having his photo taken for the first time is quite fun – there are scenes that drag and feel a bit unnecessary. The point of the film may be to show life’s interesting moments as well as some of it’s rudimentary dull ones, but it makes for a film that feels unfocused. That coupled with the fact that there are some supporting characters that seem to get left by the wayside and Mr. Turner seems as though it isn’t sure of where it’s going, just as its main character feels.
Like his paintings, Mr. Turner is a somewhat blurry exploration of one man’s life. The film is magnificent to behold and features a fantastic turn from Mr. Spall but something feels off. Leaving the theater, I couldn’t help but feel like the film was not as focused as it could have been. Maybe that’s what Mr. Leigh sought out to do, and maybe I didn’t quite get it. It’s his work of art. I was just observing.