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‘Mr. Turner’ Review: Mike Leigh’s Strong Direction Draws Out Beauty, Warts and All

mr turner review

Read Andy’s review here.

Mr. Turner presents the beauty of J.M.W. Turner’s 19th century watercolors without the rose-tinted glasses of so many period dramas (I’m looking at you Pride and Prejudice). Acclaimed British writer and director Mike Leigh delves into London at the dawn of the Industrial Age, psoriasis and all. With Oscar-worthy acting, direction and even makeup and costume design, it is hard to pinpoint the film’s weakest link besides the two and a half hour length, though even that can be justified in capturing about 25 years in a revolutionary painter’s life.

Instead of the story of how he made it (that we so often see in biopics), Leigh instead takes us to the last part of Turner’s life when, according to historical accounts, the artist was at his most eccentric. Britain is known for a lot of things, but not so much its painters. Consequently Turner, whose maritime landscape paintings are thought to have bridged the Romantic area with Impressionism, is characterized as a big fish in a little pond though the artist’s preference for boats over grand historical paintings generated a mixed opinion among his contemporaries. The tale of Turner could easily have been overdone, but Leigh employs some of that dry, British wit in presenting this big fish who most others saw more as an elephant in the room.

Timothy Spall, who like most British actors can be traced back to Harry Potter as Peter Pettigrew, portrays Turner as a brute who can somehow capture the delicate essence of the sky at sunset. He spits onto the canvas and smears it around with little concern for being placed in the less prestigious anteroom of the Royal Academy of Arts. Crude and uncompromising, Turner keeps company mostly with his father William Turner (Paul Jesson) and his loyal housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson). Lest we think Turner was just an endearing eccentric, his former flame Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), Hannah’s aunt, and Turner’s two illegitimate daughters appear every so often to remind viewers as with many artistic types, his behavior and favor was just as mercurial as popular opinion.

A deft scene early on in the film shows Turner’s father shaving a pig’s head in preparation to be eaten and the next scene shaving J. M.W. Turner himself. Somehow that oinker just gets art, if not how to relate to people, and Leigh draws out this spectrum instead of relegating Turner to misunderstood genius or some other hackneyed cliché.

Just like most of Mike Leigh’s other films, his intense preparation with the actors draws out performances from every member of the cast that are at the same time stylized and resonant. Leigh’s style of direction pushes intensive character work and improvisation with actors before filming, even on scenes not included in the film, so that the actors have a role in shaping the final product. As a result Mr. Turner manages to draw even a 21-year-old American like myself into the foreign life of aristocratic London the in 19th century. Spall’s Turner clearly succeeds, but I kept finding my eye drawn to his maid who embodies the sense of an old maid while an often overlooked tenderness.

The complex relationship between Danby and Turner comes across to an extent in dialogue, but for the most part her glances and straightening up in the background speak volumes about her unrequited feelings for him. Good thing too because the old-fashioned British dialogue can be hard to follow initially, but luckily Turner himself communicates in grunts conveying “uh-huh”, “nope” and “don’t start with me” all with great success. There is more dialogue between Turner and his father and between Turner and his next lover, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), who both have more straightforward relationships with him but still the most intimate moments get by on body language the viewer becomes quite acclimated with by the end of the film. While entertaining an aristocratic Lord patron, Turner sketches a party at his estate where few words are spoken but the rollicking party exudes discomfort and merriment with well-chosen music and a few good leers.

With strong acting driving the film, Mike Leigh’s usual cinematographer Dick Pope follows it all with a watchful lens. Often composed almost like a photograph with an object in the foreground and unfolding action in the background, Pope never overshadows the work done on-screen with the screen itself – a wise decision most likely perfected over years working with Leigh. Mike Leigh had a vision and it comes across clearly and without pretense. For an insightful, character-driven film this holiday season look no further than Mr. Turner.