Directed by Mike Leigh, this biographical drama of the eccentric-yet-great British painter, J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851), is 150 minutes long and in my opinion, drags out rather a bit. Lauded with praise by critics, a bevy of nominations for accolades such as Best Director, Best Actor, Best Costume Design and Best Cinematography, as well as two wins in the 2014 Cannes Film Festival (amoung other awards), Mr Turner also received enthused reviews of The Guardian and our own NZ Herald. Nevertheless, wider audiences seem underwhelmed by the film, with many commenting on the lack of structured plot and relatively slow pace (including me).
Something everyone agrees on, however, is Timothy Spall’s fantastic performance as leading man, known to us as the irascible “Mr Turner”. Though he slightly recalls ‘Wormtail’ from the Harry Potter series in the animalistic nature of his character, the physicality of Spall is transformed into a great, grunting boar, rather than a timorous rat. His vigorous painting style capture the frenetic genius of Turner, and his taciturn, piggish nature gives a tremendous performance on screen, especially when paired with Marion Bailey’s more maternal and jolly Mrs Booth (his mistress). He and his father, “Daddy”, played by Paul Jesson, make quite a matched pair. Indeed, the drama lives up to its name with the two monumental death scenes of Messrs Turner, complete with rattling last breaths, bright yellow light transfiguring a dying face and the breakdown of the loved one left behind. The other supporting actors and actresses all give strong performances, well-outfitted with appropriate Dickensian prose and costume.
Mr Turner is very technically beautiful, with a well-articulated Victorian feel to it, and haunting music which swells as the camera pans across the gorgeous vistas and stunning landscapes which Turner frequents. The cinematography is a poignant visual reminder of the advancing nature of human endeavours, complementing the film’s narrative offerings of Turner’s reactions to the introduction of steam engines and the camera. Quite self-reflective as a whole, Mr Turner also includes some hilariously magniloquent talk of art. It describes the tensions of the British arts scene at the time with both humour and tension, picking up on Mr Turner’s respected position and fondly accepted advice as well as his royal humiliations as a member of the Royal Academy of Arts.
The final word? If you like Mike Leigh, you’ll like this. If you’re after a gripping, tear jerking drama, perhaps not. But it certainly garnered a good few chuckles from my neighbours.