MOVIE REVIEW: Mr. Turner
"MR. TURNER"-- 2 STARS
I'm starting to notice that mixing art and media forms into film is becoming a tough sell. Watching a writer type on a typewriter or computer is rarely cinematically interesting or compelling. The same can be said for watching someone paint or draw. Moving pictures move, but those actions aren't enough. Voiceover monologues and a stirring musical score backing can help, but it's normally not enough. Forgive the pun and idiom simplification, but the film-going result can sometimes be the equivalent of watching paint dry. It doesn't help that it seems like the only writers or artists that get their stories turned into movies are the eccentric ones. I understand that the intrinsic unconventionality is what makes the story more interesting for a two-hour movie, but too many cliches and tiresome elements bubble to the surface. Then, you multiply those by the usual "biopic" tropes and things get out of hand.
Take the whole film history of artists from 1956's "Lust for Life" all the way to the 2000's Oscar-winning "Pollock." We've seen the "method behind the madness" thing talked about before. They're all mad and they all have a method that no one gets until history deems them great. We've seen the "struggling artist" plight before. They're always scrapping by and living on the fringe of success. We've seen the flawed characters with their endless destructive vices. While each artist is unique, the tone and presentation always feels the same from film to film.
Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner" feels like another extension of that trend. As beautifully presented as "Mr. Turner" is at telling the story of English Romanticist painter J.M.W. Turner, too much of it is uninteresting, familiar in tone, and predictable in execution. What normally can save a film about an artist is the subject's life beyond his or her work. An interesting person can make up for the uninteresting content. Though led by a invested performance from character actor Timothy Spall, "Mr. Turner" can't muster enough of that to separate itself as something special.
Spall, known to most audiences for supporting roles in big budget fare like "Enchanted," "The Last Samurai," "Sweeney Todd," and the "Harry Potter" franchise, portrays the great Joseph Mallord William Turner. Deemed the "painter of light," Turner's mastery work in oil and watercolor specializing in seaside landscapes gained great recognition as a Romantic period standard-bearer, predating the Impressionism that followed. Back then, in his own day, Turner was just one of several British artists struggling to earn the acclaim they felt they earned. Dismissed often and misunderstood, critics and contemporaries never grasped his genius, though several wealthy nobles flocked to his work.
Unmarried and refuting his fatherhood of two children, Turner lived away from public attention and closely with two confidants, his father William (stage veteran Paul Jesson) and his longtime housekeeper Hannah Danby (frequent Leigh collaborator Dorothy Atkinson). Turner trusts his father's guidance implicitly and seems to work to please him more than anyone else. Danby, who would serve Turner for 40 years, pined for his attention only to be used sexually and dismissed emotionally to other women Turner put more time and attention towards. After taking the anguishing death of his father hard, Turner immersed himself deeper into his work and began a courtship with a twice-widowed landlady named Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey, another Leigh regular). All in all, the film spans the final 25 years of Turner's life from 1825 to 1851.
Submitted for the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, "Mr. Turner" earned Timothy Spall the Best Actor prize at the competition. The New York Film Critics Circle bestowed Spall the same award as their Best Actor of 2014. He is easily the top and best reason to experience "Mr. Turner." Compared to his all-too-frequent sidekick and villain roles, Leigh's film was a prime chance for Spall to show what he could do with deeper material, strong characterization, and a larger stage. He succeeds and comports himself very well, and even did his own painting to match Turner. The potential swings and mannerisms this historical figure could take towards ugly or incorrigible traits are never overdone by Spall to reach a cartoonish or buffoonish level. They are respectfully contained and backed by a gentlemanly core of principle that rings true. He is definitely on Oscar's shortlist for a nomination later this month.
The strong secondary reason to compliment "Mr. Turner" is the film's outstanding visual palette. Cinematographer Dick Pope ("The Illusionist"), sure to be Oscar-nominated as well for this film, strikingly delivers scene after scene of the raw, rustic, and beautiful settings that match the artist's adoration and historic work that married man and landscape. From fertile grassy fields, beachfront shores, boats at seas, vast harbor views, and even the richly detailed interiors, you feel and see the future masterpiece laid out before you and Turner. Pope's patience and tedious work with digital cameras to capture the right lighting, color, look, and moving portraits of the vistas are perfectly natural and contain no doctoring of visual effects, further digital enhancements, or matte replacements. For cinematography lovers, the Thompson on Hollywood blog on Indiewire and Variety magazine both did nice pieces on Dick Pope's work on this film that are worth follow-up reads.
Beyond Spall's acting and Pope's visual beauty, there's not enough present in "Mr. Turner" to create a compelling historical drama. No actor or actress registers much of a presence to match Spall. Gary Yershon's musical score is scant and mismatched to some degree. The pace plods with uninteresting sidebars and the banal scenes of dialogue and storytelling outnumber the fascinating or interesting ones that could have offered a richer and more absorbing look into the man's method or the historical art period itself. As beautiful as the film can be visually from time to time, the ordinary threads underneath the visuals are not enough to sell the extraordinary scope of the art or history.
Through the likes of "Secrets and Lies," "Topsy-Turvy," and "Vera Drake," Mike Leigh has been a filmmaker who can convey strong commentary on the topics he chooses and put them in full-bodied films. "Mr. Turner" doesn't push enough of that. There's depth here, but it's too hard to see. That, and it doesn't help that the film is being marketed as some feel-good film right there with "The Theory of Everything," because it's not. Leigh is not going to lose any respect as an artistic filmmaker with "Mr. Turner," but he's not going to be engaging or gaining any new respect either.
LESSON #1: HOW AN ARTIST SEES AND DISTILLS THE WORLD-- What makes artists special are their unique eye and vision, both literal and figurative. That's the method to their madness that sets them apart from their peers. To some people, all they saw in Turner's art was the same foggy swirls of light and color and they missed the intricate details and elements layered within the larger work. Turner gravitated to that as well as the sense of light in an image. He had a meticulous eye for that and sought to capture that his way.
LESSON #2: THE LOSS OF TOUCH, TALENT, AND VIGOR OVER TIME-- Because this film follows J.M.W. Turner for the latter half of his life until his death, we witness his natural decline. Skillful touch degrades over time. Figurative vision fades with literal vision. Talent and taste wain and vigor ages. These eventual losses hit artists the hardest because their livelihood comes from their touch, vision, talent, effort, and vigor. The great ones hold these things until the end and die with unfinished works and goals.
LESSON #3: THE INTENTION OF THE RADICAL ARTIST-- With that vision from Lesson #1, artists have to separate their work and talent from everyone else and find their unique niche. Criticism and interpretation of art show the divisive balance of love and dislike given to artists and their work. Everyone is going to have a different take or level of respect. I'm even showing a version of that balance in this negative-skewing review of "Mr. Turner" itself compared to, for example, the perfect four-star review of "Mr. Turner" by Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune. The root is still intention. There are reasons for the differences in styles, perspectives, and principles, most of which are almost always intentionally planned for and designed by the artists themselves.