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Back last Fall when all the Oscar contenders were putting on the their best faces for the public, the only press coverage I saw for the English film Mr. Turner was its director Mike Leigh in print, complaining about something or another and being slighted as a man who makes boring movies. In the film's leading role the marvelous Timothy Spall gives what should have been an Oscar-nominated performance. I think the reason he wasn't considered is obvious, as even the poster for Mr. Turner contrives to make a swipe of orange paint cover Spall's face. The red carpet still favors beautiful people.
I've only discovered four or five of Leigh's pictures; I find them films of extremes, either delightful or disturbing but always honest. Naked is a brutal but compelling drama, but Happy-Go-Lucky with Sally Hawkins is a spiritually uplifting charmer. Topsy-Turvy is an excellent Criterion Blu-ray, as is the intense Life is Sweet, which stars Mr. Turner's Timothy Spall. All or Nothing also features Spall in its ensemble, and shows occasionally on the MGMHD channel.
Mr. Turner is a period film like Topsy-Turvy, and just as impressive a production. Technically a biopic, it refrains from the 'now let us praise great men' tack traditionally followed in fine films like Korda's 1936 Rembrandt, or the 'stylize everything to look like fine art' approach as seen in Minnelli's Lust for Life. MikeLeigh again applies his unique, theatrically developed constructionist theories, building a script as he goes through collaborative work with his many creative associates, starting with his highly professional actors. The result is an arresting drama that at all times retains the feeling of life being lived. Although a biography, the movie is not a series of 'important moments' in which every scene shows a telegram being received, an historical decision being made or a triumph being celebrated. 1
We see J.M.W. Turner, the famed English painter (1775-1851) in the last quarter-century of his life. He's an established 'great man' but also an artisan beholden to lofty lords of the realm, the customers that buy his impressive landscapes, seascapes and naval-themed romantic paintings. As a member of the Royal Academy, Turner's work became world famous. A cantankerous man of few words, he came from humble beginnings but was respected in formal company. He got along well with his father William (Paul Jesson of All or Nothing), a former barber who for decades happily served as his son's assistant. Turner had a strange relationship with his housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson of Topsy-Turvy), a quiet woman, now middle-aged. Two illegitimate daughters drop by at the first of each month to pick up an allowance and verbally harangue the father who won't acknowledge them. The phenomenally prolific Turner is constantly traveling to Holland and the North of England to sketch ideas for his work. In town, he accepts invitations from his immensely wealthy patrons, some of whom are on very friendly terms. Active within the Academy, Turner is an established authority whose opinion is sought out. He's kind and friendly to so some fellow artists but short and curt with others. He has no patience for Haydon (Martin savage of V for Vendetta), a belligerent egotist who alienates potential friends. He cruelly mocks the impressionist daubings working their way into one colleague's vast canvasses, but silently accepts the harsh criticism that his own work attracts when it becomes more abstract. On one of his trips Turner meets Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), a plain but wonderfully welcoming owner of rooms to rent in Margate. Even as his career and his health begin to fail, Turner enjoys a second life with the widow Booth. He poses as her husband, a ruse easily seen through by a visiting doctor.
You'll be at least forty minutes into Mr. Turner before you realize that this fascinating, deliberately paced movie has you completely in its grip. Timothy Spall's Turner is a fascinating man, an earthy eccentric at home, laughing as he paints, happily embracing his father and rather weirdly molesting his housekeeper and common law wife Mrs. Danby. She's completely devoted to her employer but remains a wretched presence when Turner and his father receive potential customers. We rarely hear prices, but as one of the top names in the Royal Academy Turner's work sells for a pretty penny. If his makeshift display room is packed with unsold works, it's only because he turns them out so quickly.
Everything is interesting in this story, which takes place between roughly 1825 and 1850. We have to piece together facts from observation, watching William crush the ingredients to make certain oil colors, or following Turner as he effortlessly charms an ultra-rich customer, and then charms a lady at a piano with his sensitivity toward fine music. The corpulent Turner is always on the move, sailing on a packet boat, hiking along the seashore or sketching a windmill in a marsh in Holland. As embodied by Timothy Spall, Turner could be a character out of Charles Dickens, with a protruding belly, tight little vests and a speaking manner that sometimes substitutes various grunts for words. He's a sweetheart when pleased and a pompous ogre when not. Turner tries to give the always-outraged Haydon the benefit of the doubt, but when the artist's insults verge on hysteria there's little choice but to show him the door. Always claiming to be the victim of a social conspiracy by those jealous of his talent, Haydon throws scenes calculated to encourage Turner to forgive his debts.
The picture has many impressive visuals. Turner enjoys proud times at the Royal Academy's big shows, where hundreds of paintings go on display. When Turner visits a prostitute, just being with a woman seems to bring out all the sad feelings he feels for his father. Out in a hired rowboat, Turner watches as a warship known as a veteran of Trafalgar is towed ashore to be junked. Seen in little bursts of warm interaction, Turner finds peace and understanding with the cozy Mrs. Booth, who beams with joy under his compliments. Meanwhile, old Hannah Danby becomes afflicted with a disfiguring skin condition. Turner spends less time at home: his relationship with Mrs. Booth is a separate, secret second life.
The acting is of a caliber high above the judgment of this reviewer -- the vivid characters seem to be fully integrated into scenes rather than emoting to a prearranged dramatic form. Leigh's camera tracks through grand halls but also stays nailed to intimate conversations. Turner is forever conscious of the light in rooms, spilling through windows; he meets Mrs. Booth because of a felicitous room with a perfect window over Margate Bay. When Booth and Turner talk about their future, they discuss taking advantage of the new railway line that's being built. Or would it be more convenient if she relocates to Chelsea, to make it easier for him to visit?
Only in the natural element does Mr. Turner contrive to mimic some of the artist's works, mainly in compositions and the colors of skies. We're told that the film crew waited for perfect conditions for some visuals, but the director of photography does admit that digital manipulation was added for some scenes. The movie makes the 1840s seem such a magical time, in which everything seems fresh and new. In the final act we see Turner's painting style seemingly overtaken by bursts of clouds and storms that obliterate the ships that are the supposed subject matter. Turner is discomfited by the new daguerreotype technology, even as he has his portrait taken. When the patronizing American photographer says that adding color to photos is just a fantasy, the artist is visibly relieved. Back at the shows, the visiting Queen Victoria and Prince Albert dismiss his more abstract pieces as worthless, and his reputation plummets as the vultures of fashion turn against him. Turner may look pompous but he's really a man of integrity. He defends painters that came before his time, and knows that it is pointless to become defensive about his new work.
Mr. Turner makes us feel as if all of this is happening yesterday. Turner and his contemporaries are just like us, except they live in a less technological world where one must be philosophical about the precariousness of one's health and the vagaries of one's fortunes. There's not a phony moment in the picture, and when it is over the experience feels like an enlightenment. Mike Leigh may not suffer fools well in interviews, but he's one of the least compromising filmmakers now working.
Sony Pictures Classics' Blu-ray of Mr. Turner is a fine disc that captures the delicate shadings and hues of Dick Pope's near-inspirational images. We feel refreshed even after 150 minutes of this engrossing show. Gary Yershon's surprisingly modern score is a fine compliment to the images; we hear plenty of contemporaneous source music, some of it in the form of bawdy songs of the period, all enthusiastically received.
Director Leigh contributes a full commentary, meting out credit and praise for his major creative contributors and pointing out many authentic details gleaned from research. Extended featurettes with some of these associates cover the cinematography, the historical J.M.W. Turner and the production in general. The 'varnishing day' grand exhibition of the Academy's paintings was recreated exactly was it was 170 years ago. A deleted scene is also listed among the extras. Audio tracks and subtitles are provided in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mr. Turner Blu-ray
1. Take a look sometime at Walter Huston in an old creaker called Rhodes of Africa. It's a stultifying, pickled, highly suspect whitewash of colonial history. Huston as Rhodes practically turns to the camera and decries, "I am now about to make a very very important decision!" --- again and again through the whole show. It plays on TCM every so often.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.