(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