Review: Mr. Turner (Leigh, 2014)

Still from the movie Mr. Turner

My husband and I picked this as our Friday night movie to watch a little before the holidays. A slow-moving biopic of the late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth century landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, Mr. Turner premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where Timothy Spall, who plays Turner, won the Best Actor award. (Spall was snubbed for an Oscar this year, but the film still received four nominations, for Cinematography, Costume Design, Music, and Production Design.)

Without the benefit of subtitles, American audiences might find the dialogue a little difficult to follow at first, not least because Spall’s Turner is a grumbly, gruff sort of man who growls his words rather than states them. This is not your BBC or Oxford accent. But persistent viewers will soon fall into the rhythm of the speech (somewhat) and enjoy a film that rather resembles a landscape painting itself. (Drowsy or work-fatigued viewers like my husband will fall asleep within the first twenty minutes of this two-and-a-half hour movie and finally trudge off to bed before it’s over.)

Mr. Turner is a quiet film, almost somnolent. It opens in the middle of Turner’s life, upon the return of one of his trips to Holland. His household is comprised of a doting though ailing father (Paul Jesson) and a homely housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), the latter of whom also seems to serve as a sexual outlet for Turner. The other prominent figure in the painter’s life is an innkeeper’s wife, Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), whom Turner encounters in his frequent trips to Margate, a small town on the northeast Kent coast. Though the biopic distinctly doesn’t try to achieve any traditional narrative arc, these two women–Mrs. Booth and Turner’s servant–serve as the movie’s two antipodes, suggesting an emotional compass for the film, as well as for the painter’s nature.

Unlike other British period movies, Mr. Turner makes no attempt to romanticize the past. In fact, it doesn’t romanticize anything. Life appears at turns dirty, diseased, harsh, silly, bawdy, and pleasurable. One suspects director Mike Leigh of caring a fair deal about historical accuracy and realism, and there is some delight in seeing museum artifacts come to life. But isn’t romanticizing what films do best? With their swooning scores and pretty faces? The allure of the silver screen is in that swell of feeling that a film ignites in us, is it not? That escapism it provides? Well, Leigh will have none of that. He stands at the other extreme, the type of artist who unapologetically revels in such grimy details as the yellow rot of a character’s teeth. So much the better, the contrarian in me is bound to think. Nevertheless, such displays, combined with a certain narrative restraint, can leave little to hang one’s attention on, and even I found myself wondering throughout the film how much of its 150-minute length I’d achieved so far.

Yet, ironically, the film attains precisely that uniquely cinematic sense of sweeping contemplation that its filmmaker seems to defy. Was it the cinematography, so deliberately grand and landscape-y? Was it just experiencing something different, something passably “authentic” (I use the word fully aware of all of its fallacious implications)? Well, while I’m still puzzled as to why, I can say this: that the more I reflect upon Mr. Turner the more I am certain that the film is, oh, not just good, but indeed something special.