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Film Review: ‘Mr. Turner’ deserves Best Picture at Academy Awards

What the film has conjured up is a splendid caricature. Timothy Spall plays Turner as a ruddy, bristled, open-pored brute and grunts his way through the movie, offering contortions of face and body that by some acting alchemy are not only persuasive but strangely compelling.

Mr. Turner

Director: Mike Leigh

Starring: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville

If there was any common sense in Hollywood – and of course there isn’t – English director Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner would waltz away with the best picture Oscar on Sunday night, and take a whole suitcase of others along with it. As things stand it is only nominated in the lower order categories of cinematography, production design, costume design, and original score. Even if it gets any of them, they are going to seem no more than “worthy effort” consolation prizes.

Mr. Turner focuses on the later years of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), the greatest English landscape painter to pick up a brush. It is the most recent result of Mike Leigh’s unique working methods. Long before he has a script, he works on studies and improvisations with individual actors: he had Timothy Spall, his leading man here, taking painting lessons for two years. Then he brings actors together to improvise aspects of relationship and character that often seem to have no direct bearing on events in the finished movie. It is in this long-winded process that a script gradually evolves, and no matter how bizarre it is regarded in some circles, it proves a huge success here.

Timothy Spall as Turner in his studio.
Timothy Spall as Turner in his studio.

Not entirely by chance, Leigh’s experimental methods have direct parallels in the improvisatory nature of his subject’s own mature work. Just as Turner’s best known paintings often present sharp details amid near abstract swaths of paint, this movie offers less a seamless narrative than a succession of interrelated episodes. By accumulating observations rather than telling a simple story it achieves something much closer to the nature of lived experience.

Some of the details Leigh has chosen relate the most familiar anecdotes of Turner’s life. He has himself tied to the mast of a ship so that he can have direct experience of a storm at sea; he treats the Royal Academy’s Varnishing Day as an arena for his exuberant painting performances; and he has his father – a sometime barber – work as his studio assistant. On the other hand, Leigh’s larger narrative themes feature aspects of Turner’s life that the increasingly secretive celebrity artist did his best to obscure. These repeatedly involve his relationships with women: his despicable treatment of his housekeeper; his no more honorable rejection of his mistress of ten years and their two grown daughters; and by contrast, his rather sweet love affair with Sophia Booth, the companion of his last years.

The exquisitely multifaceted Turner that Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall have created is not an altogether accurate portrayal. This apparently doesn’t concern them and, pointing out that his movie is not a documentary, Leigh told London’s Daily Mail that sticklers for art historical accuracy could “fuck off.” What they have conjured up between them is a splendid caricature. Timothy Spall plays Turner as a ruddy, bristled, open-pored brute and grunts his way through the

Turner demonstrates his painting techniques on Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy in London.
Turner demonstrates his painting techniques on Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy in London.

movie, offering contortions of face and body that by some acting alchemy are not only persuasive but strangely compelling. Leigh has said that his movie is about “the tensions and contrasts between this very mortal man and his timeless work” and the fact that the walking gargoyle he and Spall have created might be responsible for some of the most sublime works in the history of art is at the heart of Mike Leigh’s fascination with the peculiar nature of artistic creation.

Spall got best actor at Cannes for his efforts, and having entirely snubbed Mr. Turner, BAFTA (The British Academy of Film and Television Arts) announced at the last minute that Mike Leigh would get a Fellowship. Turner never really got what he deserved either. He left his work to the British nation with the very simple stipulation that it all be kept in one place. They took the work, split it up, and routinely ship it all over the world. Some things never change.

Mr. Turner opens today, February 20, at the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington, Mass. For showtimes and tickets, click here.

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