John Ruskin: There is no place for cynicism in the reviewing of art.
When making a biopic, a filmmaker literally has an entire lifetime of experiences to choose from and capture on film. The conventional biopic would chronicle the entire life of its subject, but British director Mike Leigh is anything but conventional. In MR. TURNER, Leigh chooses to focus on the latter half of painter J.M.W. Turner’s life, from when the painter is at his career peak, to his inevitable death.
The film opens as Turner (Timothy Spall) returns from a long voyage. He comes home to his father (Paul Jesson) and his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), with whom he shares a sexual relationship. Turner often travels under a pseudonym to the small coastal town of Margate, where he forms his final relationship with a kindly widow (Marion Bailey).
MR. TURNER is rather unusually structured. Instead of having one main story and conflict carrying the film, the film unfolds in a more episodic manner, often moving year to year, towards the end of the artist’s life. Viewers will have to pay close attention to the film, because unlike many biopics, MR. TURNER doesn’t tell us when a year has passed, or what year it is for that matter. You’ll have to look for cues from the actors’ makeup and the evolution of Turner’s paintings to keep up with the progression of time in the film.
Some of the film’s best moments come when Turner visits the Royal Academy of Art. Watching the standoffish Turner interact with other artists provides great entertainment. One scene at the Academy briefly touches upon Turner’s ongoing feud with John Constable, and it is hilarious.
The film won the Best Actor award for Spall at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; it’s easy to see why he won the award immediately. Spall plays the eccentric Turner with such force as he chews through the film’s gorgeous scenery. In MR. TURNER, Spall has crafted more variations on the grunt then I thought humanly possible.
Whether you know his work or not, MR. TURNER is a rewarding experience for any mature cinemagoer or art lover.
How many sheep would you give Mr. Turner?