Starring: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson
Genre: Drama/ Biography
During his life J.M.W. Turner (Spall) was one of Britain’s greatest painters but without doubt an eccentric man who was both celebrated and reviled by the public and the Royal Academy of Arts. Mr Turner looks at the last quarter of a century of his life after the death of his father William (Paul Jesson), whom he was very close to and his relationships with both his housekeeper and secret relationship with a widowed guest house owner and how it all affected his life and work.
Though it sounds like a basic biopic by numbers with its 150 minute running time and excellent production values, there are two key words that make Mr Turner more than that: Mike Leigh. Mike Leigh is in my view one of Britain’s best living directors with an exceptional back catalogue of films made in his unique and often uncompromising way (only a good thing in his case), and this is a historical biopic in his style. Mr Turner is a sumptuous film that is beautifully made, superbly written and terrifically acted and is rich with ideas on a plethora of subjects.
Though the 150 minute running time may put off some, it is fully justified as it allows Leigh to develop all the ideas and themes within the narrative and make a film that becomes increasingly involving as it goes along. We have no generic voiceovers to mollycoddle us; this is a biopic Mike Leigh style, and though at first Mr Turner in my view requires effort from the viewer, as we are given characters with little exposition, however this effort becomes an infinitely rewarding viewing experience as the narrative develops.
Holding everything together is an incredibly physical performance from Timothy Spall, Mike Leigh always presents to us his characters with honesty and integrity, and Turner has his flaws and vices, but is never anything less than a fascinating character. Despite the fact Turner predominantly communicates in grunting, (though his words also vary between eloquent and abrupt) Spall miraculously avoids that becoming caricature. These moments are sometimes quite funny, but this being Mike Leigh, things are just presented matter of fact, and there is always humour to be found in real life. Mr Turner does have plenty of humorous moments, especially the moments at the royal academy of arts when art is discussed and the moments involving the slightly bonkers artist Benjamin Haydon, who is brilliantly played by Martin Savage.
Forming the emotional backbone of the narrative are Turner’s relationships with the two women in the last 25 years of his life; his housekeeper Hannah Danby (Atkinson) and his Margate landlady Sohia Booth (Marion Bailey) whom becomes Turner’s mistress. Despite frequent bad treatment by Turner, sometimes being exploited sexually, Hannah Danby has a deep love for him and Atkinson is superb and heartbreaking as her. Marion Bailey is also excellent as Sophia Booth and the loving relationship between her and Turner gives the film even more heart. Both relationships are heartbreaking to watch in their own right.
Visually, Mr Turner is stunning to look at; regular Mike Leigh D.O.P. Dick Pope does a superb job and not only does his cinematography bring out the brilliance of Turner’s paintings, but so many shots feel like works of art themselves.
Looking at other reviews, Mr Turner seems to either be a film to love or hate, with “boring” and “dull” being words that are frequently used and many criticising the film’s structure. Well, Mr. Turner may not be a conventional biopic by numbers and does require some effort from the viewer, but though I appreciate Mike Leigh’s style may not appeal to all, in my view Mr. Turner is a superbly made and infinitely rewarding viewing experience and yet another Mike Leigh masterpiece.
A sumptuous and involving experience from start to finish; Mr. Turner is yet another Mike Leigh masterpiece with incredible performances, rich visuals and compelling ideas.
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