Actors: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson
Director: Mike Leigh
Format: Multiple Formats, Blu-ray, Anamorphic, Dolby, DTS Surround Sound, Widescreen, NTSC
Rated: R (Restricted)
Studio: SONY PICTURES
Release Date: May 5, 2015
Run Time: 150 minutes
Throughout the two-and-a-half hour running-time of Mr. Turner, I don’t believe I ever fully grasped the point of Mike Leigh’s biography, though I found myself captivated by each individual sequence. All of the individual elements are something to marvel, from the magnificent cinematography to Timothy Spall’s incredibly dedicated performance, despite coherence in theme and direction missing from the overall experience. If a realistic period film about a reclusive artist was all Leigh was attempting to achieve, he was extremely successful, though part of me longed to understand the title character rather than just experience him.
Rather than a straightforward biopic, Mr. Turner is a collection of events and moments from the last 25 years of the artist’s life. We don’t see how J.M.W. Turner (Spall) got to his place of professional prestige, aren’t told the details about his personal life, who he is married to as opposed to simply served by, or why he hides behind pseudonyms. His family connections are left mostly unexplained aside from the close relationship he has with his father (Paul Jesson), until death parts them. We watch the petulant man in his routine of painting and the business behind this work, taking time occasionally to impulsively grope whatever woman happens to be nearest. The outward performance by Spall is so convincingly dedicated that one could read between the lines of the screenplay to find answers to this behavior, though Leigh seems unwilling to make this an easy task. The end result is not dissimilar to experiencing art in a museum; the audience is permitted to marvel without being allowed to get close enough to see intent beneath the brush strokes.
Part of the struggle with Leigh’s screenplay is the unwillingness to dumb things down enough to give any exposition for the narrative. We jump into Turner’s life without any understanding of who the people are in his life, forced to scrap together tidbits from brief encounters and the series of moments and/or events that make up the 150-minute running-time. We see Turner at work briefly, though these are more often instances for Dick Pope’s Academy Award-nominated cinematography to shine, showing what the subject of his paintings might have looked like during the process of artistic creation. There are small encounters that also expose the man’s difficulty in social situations, whether in the mistreatment of his staff or the lending of money to a fellow artist. One of the film’s more engaging subplots shows an affair the artist has with an elderly woman he often rents a room from while working on his maritime paintings.
This is one of those films which seems to cause a division between critics and paying audience members, while I find myself falling somewhere in the middle. I see the points of each side as valid; although I don’t agree that Mr. Turner is dull, I did find the approach to the material far more intellectually satisfying than emotionally. The excellence with which the technical aspects of the story were accomplished led me to wish that the filmmaker had been a bit less elitist with his approach. It feels like a film made only for those already familiar with the life and work of Turner, simultaneously turning its nose up to all of those hoping to be exposed to this material through the biopic. I am not surprised critics are falling over themselves praising this film, because they seem to love films which make them feel like a part of some elitist group that understands what others are ill-equipped to dissect. This is why every Terrence Malick film will garner at least a few rave reviews, and even seems to be the subject of a few ironic sequences of snobby art discussion within Mr. Turner. With that being said, I also believe that Timothy Spall gave the best film performance of last year, regardless of the politics and preferences of the Academy towards actors playing handicapped, losing weight, or comeback performances.
The Blu-ray release offers an exclusive featurette about the cinematography of Mr. Turner, which is a highlight of both the film and the high definition disc. Despite my disappointment in aspects of the narrative, the cinematography is nothing short of spectacular and likely the best non effects-driven film to be released on Blu-ray from last year. The additional extras include a commentary track with director Mike Leigh, an additional featurette, and a handful of deleted scenes.
Entertainment Value: 7/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 8/10
Historical Significance: 7.5/10
Special Features: 7/10