Mr. Turner


Timothy Spall is nothing if not Dickensian.

Timothy Spall is nothing if not Dickensian.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Sony Classics) Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Karl Johnson, Ruth Sheen, Sandy Foster, Amy Dawson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Niall Buggy, Fred Pearson, Tom Edden, Jamie Thomas King, Mark Stanley, Nicholas Jones, Clive Francis, Robert Portal, Simon Chandler, Edward de Souza, Karina Fernandez. Directed by Mike Leigh

J.M.W. Turner was a man of his times but he was also ahead of his time. In the prime of his career, he was one of the most respected and successful artists in the history of Great Britain but as he began to change his style he fell out of favor although ironically it is his later work which presaged the impressionist movement and is among the very best of his output.

Turner (Spall) had a certain amount of fame and had a love-hate relationship with his celebrity. He’d often leave his home base in London to sketch and dwell in places like France and the Netherlands, or in Margate where he grew up or on the country estates of wealthy patrons. At home he lives with his father (Jesson) who buys his paints, constructs his frames and mixes his paints for him. Turner’s hard work ethic definitely comes from dear old dad who for his part is tinkled pink that his son has made something of himself. There’s also the housemaid Sarah Danby (Atkinson) who clearly has feelings for the painter which he studiously ignores, although from time to time the two rut without much affection, at least on Turner’s part.

There’s also a former paramour (Sheen), a relationship that has yielded two daughters that Turner also studiously ignores despite the nagging of their mother. She harangues him about his thoughtlessness and lack of support; he tolerates it for the most part for a few moments before turning his back and returning to work. Mortifying behavior back in the early 19th century.

On a visit to Margate he encounters Sophia Booth (Bailey) who runs a rooming house on the waterfront with her retired seaman husband (Johnson). Turner takes a shine to the location as well as to Mrs. Booth. When her husband passes away, she and Turner become lovers although at first she doesn’t know him by his actual name; he uses one of his middle names, Mallord, when dealing with the Booths as he doesn’t want any sort of special treatment which he finds uncomfortable.

Time passes and Turner’s style begins to change. When his father passes away in 1829, Turner’s world crashes in on him, although in true British bulldog fashion he doesn’t show much outwardly. However, he turns even further into his work, only now doing the dreary parts himself. He finds himself weeping when he sketches a young prostitute. He finds his style changing to the point where some question whether his eyesight is failing him and yet his work now illuminates as well as illustrates. Paintings as beautiful as any ever produced by anyone begin to emerge.

Turner is largely unknown outside of Britain, certainly not to the American general public. I must admit that I was ignorant of his work, not being particularly an art aficionado although my sister is far more knowledgeable of art history in general than I am. I was quite taken by the work I saw onscreen and while I’m not sure whether these are reproductions or the actual works of Mr. Turner I can say with certainty that few artists loved sunlight as much as he judging from the way he displays it on canvas. Mike Leigh channels Terrence Malick by creating visual landscapes that use the sun in much the same way Turner himself did, creating almost ghostly milieus in which to display his actors. Some of the shots are breathtaking,

Spall, a veteran British character actor, has been hailed for this performance which many thought might net him an Oscar nomination (but didn’t). I have to say I have mixed feelings about it; Spall grunts, snorts, and wheezes like an asthmatic javelina. At times his mumbled dialogue is incomprehensible and I wished there had been sub-titles. Still, there’s a bulldogged quality to the performance and while I’m not familiar with what the real Turner was reputedly like (from what I understand he was not as nice as he is portrayed here) I can imagine the painter speaking his mind as shown here and devil take the hindmost if you disagree, although he is shown with a group of fellow painters having to endure the brainless cogitations of a dimwitted scion of a titled and wealthy family. Turner holds his tongue although you suspect that he’d very much like to loose it.

One feels the weight of the era on the film; Leigh does a very good job of capturing Imperial England just as Queen Victoria is ascending the throne from the costumes to the architecture to the technology and especially in the attitudes of those who are well-to-do. What Leigh doesn’t do well is tell a straightforward story. Often times you are left wondering what the purpose was for a particular scene as it seems to come up without reason or meaning. Da Queen found this very disquieting and as a result liked the movie a lot less than I did, although I have to admit I like it a lot more upon further reflection than I did exiting the theater. Sometimes movies will do that to you.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous imagery. What feels like an authentic capture of the period. Spall is a force of nature here.
REASONS TO STAY: Disjointed and sacrifices story for scenery. Could have used subtitles.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some somewhat brutal sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The replica of the early railroad train that Turner painted was loaned to the production from the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry for a single day, so the filmmakers had only one day to get the shot right.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seraphine
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Seventh Son

Eastern Promises


Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts debate over which one of them Peter Jackson likes best.

Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts debate over which one of them Peter Jackson likes best.

(2007) Thriller (Focus) Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinead Cusack, Donald Sumpter, Jerzy Skolimowski, Tatiana Maslany (voice), Sarah Jeanne Labrosse, Tereza Srbova, Raza Jaffrey, Aleksander Mikic, Mina E. Mina, Josef Altin, Shannon-Fleur Roux, Mia Soteriou, Alice Henley, Christina Catalina, Elisa Lasowski. Directed by David Cronenberg

Over the years we have been treated to many fine films about the Italian mob. Directors like Scorsese and Coppola have given us insight to that criminal element, giving us anti-heroes we could root for in a certain sense. We were shown how fiercely loyal these men were to family, and while they were also ruthless killers we nonetheless found ourselves able to identify with them.

But that was another era and another mob. These days it is said the most ruthless and vicious criminals in the world are Russian and while there are those who might argue the point, I think most would agree they are at least in the running.

When a young woman in labor comes into a London hospital, midwife Anna (Watts) thinks nothing of it at first; she’s not the first woman to come in with complications. But she dies in childbirth, leaving behind a baby and a diary with a restaurant business card in it. There is no other identification on her and the woman spoke little English, being of an Eastern European background that is similar to Anna’s, a second generation immigrant to the UK.

The restaurant puts her in touch with its genial owner, Semyon (Mueller-Stahl) who promises to find relatives of the baby that she can turn it over to. However, all isn’t as it seems; turns out the restaurant is the front for Semyon’s criminal organization and the young girl’s diary, which is in Russian and is being translated by Anna’s Uncle Stepan (Skolimowski) incriminates Semyon and his reckless son Kirill (Cassel). Semyon orders Kirill and Semyon’s driver and cleaner of messes Nikolai (Mortensen) to claim the diary and silence by whatever means those that have come in contact with the baby.

That’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot. The late Roger Ebert had the right of it when he said that this isn’t a movie about how, but about why – and you won’t see the “why” coming (although some snarky critics claimed that they could – personally I don’t believe ’em). What you SHOULD know is that Mortensen, in his second collaboration with Cronenberg, may have given the performance of his career here. His research into the role is impeccable and he is so thoroughly believable as the tattooed mobster that you probably won’t recognize him at first.

Mortensen, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance here, gives this very complex and layered character a lot of nuances, from the ironic cock of his head to the ghost of a smile that sometimes wafts over his face. When the time comes for violence however, Nikolai is more than equal to the task – a fight scene in a bath house (in which Mortensen is completely naked) is one of the most well-choreographed scenes of that nature ever filmed. By itself it’s worth the rental fee.

Watts, unfortunately, doesn’t quite live up to Mortensen’s performance. A very capable actress herself (as she showed in last year’s The Impossible) for whatever reason her character is vapid and somewhat colorless; perhaps it is simply by comparison to Mortensen’s character who is thoroughly intense and interesting, but her performance here is utterly forgettable. I have to chalk it up to the writing since as I said earlier Watts is an accomplished actress in her own right.

We also get some fine performances from Mueller-Stahl and Cassel. Both have primarily made their careers in Europe, although Mueller-Stahl has an Oscar nomination to his credit and has done his share of American movies. Cassel, mostly known to U.S. audiences for his part in the abortion of a sequel to The Crow is one of the biggest stars in France and he shows why here.

The movie goes through some sections in which the plot gets a bit muddy, particularly in the middle third. The ending is a bit strange as well, although given that this is a David Cronenberg film that shouldn’t be altogether unexpected. What I love about this movie is that it is so matter-of-fact about the Vory V Zakone (Russian for thief-in-law, roughly the equivalent of a made man) and their violence that sometimes crosses the line into sadism. These are men for whom these acts are a daily part of life and there is a certain amount of fatalism that is very Russian. While this isn’t up to the standards of The Godfather (which is a very high standard indeed) this certainly may be taken as the film that does for the Russian mob what Coppola’s classic did for the Mafia.

WHY RENT THIS: Reinforces the banality of evil. Magnificent Oscar-nominated performance by Mortensen and Cassel and Mueller-Stahl offer tremendous support.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Watts doesn’t quite hold up next to Mortensen. Jumbled in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  The violence in the film, as is not unusual with Cronenberg’s films, is graphic and disturbing. There is also a good deal of foul language, sexuality and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shot entirely in England, this is the first film Cronenberg has made completely outside of North America.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the tattoos and the significance of the figures therein. Some of the material is covered in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $56.1M on a $32M production budget; the movie was just shy of recouping its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Epic