Mr. Turner is the latest movie from writer-director, Mike Leigh (Naked, Vera Drake) and stars Timothy Spall (Secrets and Lies, Harry Potter franchise) as the titular character in this biopic about the famous and influential british painter, J.M.W. Turner.
The moment a movie attains a certain amount of critical acclaim and praise at a film festival, is the moment it automatically gains a lot of attention from the rest of the world. Mr. Turner screened at the Cannes Film Festival back in may of 2014, and as Timothy Spall won the Award for Best Actor, Mr. Turner seemed ready to take the world by storm. Sadly, it never does much to impress.
Mike Leigh seems to have quite a few ideas as to how a biopic about J.M.W. Turner should play out. Maybe too many; the movie tries a lot, but falls short in most ways. As we follow the controversial figure that is Mr. Turner for about 150 minutes, we see the bleak contrast between his beautiful art – the stunning landscape paintings – and the man’s own personality. Grunting dismissively to most everyone around him, he cares only about himself and his father. He abandoned his wife and two daughters, and when a newborn grandchild is brought before him, it’s difficult to read thoughts; is it indifference or pure contempt. It showcases the very real contrast between the beautiful innocence of art and the despicable nature of human behaviour.
It becomes easier to sympathise with him as time goes on, but it takes too long for it to actually make any real attempt at humanising its main character, and thus when it finally does, it ends up feelings rushed and unfinished. Luckily, Timothy Spall manages to do well with the little he is given, but when the movie seems fully uninterested in any nuanced character development, it becomes difficult to really applaud any of it.
Every character becomes a caricature – an extreme version of the people they are supposed to be. It seems like Mike Leigh tries to make fun of Mr. Turner’s dismissive and critical nature, and while these critical moments can work in a biopic, it has to be consistent throughout. In one scene he seems to celebrate Mr. Turner and his colleagues, but in the next, they’re subjects for ridicule.
The movie is not without a few redeeming qualities however. The cinematography is beautiful. It becomes an extension of Mr. Turners portfolio, as the landscapes he visits throughout the movie is captured with the same delicate hand we can see in his paintings. It feels very natural, and combined with the minimalistic, yet very prominent, soundtrack by Gary Yershon it manages to create its own identity, without ever feeling forced.
There is a scene near the end of the movie, where a character talks about the old-generation of painters – the men who inspired Mr. Turner – and to avoid any spoilers (if there is such in this movie), he talks about how these old men have become perfectionists: Using their brushes to add color where they’ve always done, because that is how it’s supposed to be. Never considering a more avant-garde approach to it all. Mike Leigh does the same mistake here. Adding pieces where they naturally fit in terms of classic narrative and filmic structure, but not necessarily where they make the most nuanced or memorable movie.