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MR. TURNER – Review

October 30, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


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Though mostly contemporary in setting, Mike Leigh’s cinema is predicated on hyperrealism, exploring themes and topics that are prescient whichever timeframe they’re viewed through, infused as they are by the tropes of the kitchen sink style of filmmaking he was a forefather of. After his exceptional last feature, Another Year (2010), wowed both critics and audiences, Leigh now makes one of his rare but laudable dip of the nibs into the period style of filmmaking with Mr. Turner (2014), a biopic that goes about doing something slightly different with a stilted format that’s continued to be upheld by lesser filmmakers.

Whereas a more generic depiction of the life and times of Joseph Mallord William Turner (played by Timothy Spall in the role of a lifetime) – the widely celebrated English Romantic landscape painter – would have been a birth-to-death depiction, Leigh here illustrates the latter half of Turner’s life, studying the more fascinating aspects that would go on to define him as both artist and historical figure. As with Topsy-Turvy (1999), a gorgeous examination of the relationship between W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan in the run-up to their production of ‘The Mikado’, Leigh returns to the 19th Century and charts the rise and fall of Leigh’s career, spanning from 1828 to his death in 1851, aged 76.

To say Mr. Turner has a clearly defined narrative drive or structure would be inaccurate; it is instead more a snapshot of its protagonist’s life that attempts to investigate and survey the essence of his character, his artistry and, as Leigh is evidently keen to capture, his unrivalled brilliance, no matter how flawed he is elsewhere. What we see is Turner, venerated for his mesmerising work, slowly becoming far more radical and abstract, playing fast and loose with form, content and style whilst alienating his audience and admirers. This is spliced together with the more dramatic sides of his personal life: the death of his father, which had a profound effect on him; his casual shunning of the children he fathered out of wedlock and immediately disregarded; the quasi-sexual relationship he shared with his loyal housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), and his eventual relationship with Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), his second mistress.

Commendably sidestepping a larger opening chapter concerning Turner’s formative years, Leigh uses his gloriously studied screenplay – as well his usual knack for extensive workshopping in pre-production – to tease out how the past continues to infuse and reverberate through the later stages of Turner’s life. This is especially pertinent with the heartfelt depiction of the bond he shared with his father (played by Paul Jesson): a barber and wig-maker who raised him without the presence of his mentally insane mother. They were, essentially, two men defined by their craft, with Joseph almost totally consumed by his own brilliance.

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Making real a long-mooted passion project, Mr. Turner is Leigh’s triumphant return; a film so rich in nuance and vivid intricacy, evocatively drawn from a clear understanding of the setting, from remarkable set dressing to the director’s own Dickensian ear for rhythmic dialogue, effortlessly spouted by a tremendous cast. In what may be his defining role, Spall excels as a cantankerous man who suffered for his art and whose gruff demeanour was constantly at odds with the serene, picturesque qualities of his paintings, the real-life inspirations for which are gorgeously captured by Leigh’s trusty cinematographer Dick Pope.

Clearly fascinated with his subject, Leigh has created what may be seen as his magnum opus, a film that seemingly mirrors his own prowess as a filmmaker of great talent, capturing, as it does, the spirit of an artist dedicated to projecting the chaos of the universe in all its immense beauty.

Mr. Turner is out in UK cinemas on October 31st

Edward Frost