movie film review | chris tookey

Mr Turner

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  Mr Turner Review
Tookey's Rating
5 /10
Average Rating
8.67 /10
Timothy Spall , Amy Dawson, Dorothy Atkinson
Full Cast >

Directed by: Mike Leigh
Written by: Mike Leigh

Released: 2014
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: UK
Colour: C
Length: 150

The life and times of a talented painter.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Mr Turner is a classic example of a film that impressed critics but disappointed audiences. That is borne out by its rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes. With critics, it rated a near-perfect 97%; with audiences, it rated an indifferent 56%.

One strength of the picture is Dick Pope’s cinematography. From the very first shot, Pope and director Mike Leigh shows how natural landscapes transmuted into Turner’s paintings. The best moments take us inside Turner’s painterly head.

Leigh’s admiration for Turner the artist shines through, as clearly as Leigh’s appetite for Gilbert and Sullivan pervaded his other Victorian period-piece, Topsy Turvy.

Sadly, however, Turner’s life was not exactly jam-packed with incident. This biopic feels, at times, extremely long and excruciatingly slow, and there’s painfully little sense of forward momentum.

Nor was he a particularly sympathetic man. Turner’s relations with his own family are shown to be virtually non-existent, and his irascible selfishness is that of Ebenezer Scrooge, but without a Dickensian happy ending. You’ve heard of “warts and all” biography; this one is nearly all warts. His attitude to women would have seemed crude and exploitative even in Victorian times. More than a century later, he comes across as the worst kind of male chauvinist pig - an impression made even more explicit by Tim Spall’s vocal mannerisms, which involve a lot of grunting and expectoration.

Mr Turner was hailed as a “masterpiece” by the vast majority of critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Weirdly, they didn’t seem to notice Mike Leigh’s facile sideswipe at them, via his characterization of John Ruskin, played in the movie by Joshua McGuire as a limp-wristed fop, a posturing nincompoop, speaking in a high, affected voice and pontificating arrogantly like Brian Sewell on helium, while Turner fixed him with a stolid stare and an air of imperturbable artistic superiority.

It was all too evident from the reviews that modern critics knew little more about John Ruskin than that he was a critic with a thing about pubic hair, being accustomed only to the frozen marble bodies of classical sculpture. Famously, his marriage to Effie Gray (commemorated in an equally misleading film named after her by Emma Thompson) was annulled on grounds of his impotence. In Thompson’s film, her off-screen husband Greg Wise played Ruskin as an austere ascetic, whose passions were reserved for the stones of Venice and the painting of the pre-Raphaelites. However, it is arguable that, far from being disgusted by his new bride’s physicality, Ruskin became aware that she had married him for money, not love, after her father’s bankruptcy; and when Effie sued for annulment on grounds of his impotency, Ruskin was too gentlemanly to raise an objection. Whatever the peculiarities of his private life, Ruskin deserves admiration as the best art critic this country has ever produced and the selfless patron of the pre-Raphaelites and of J.M.W. Turner. It doesn’t say much for Leigh that he views him as a ninny.

I went in, expecting a film that would probe deeply into Turner’s creativity, and show why he saw the world so differently from other painters of his era. Leigh’s screenplay doesn’t provide any insights. Perhaps the source of Turner’s genius is unfathomable, but I wanted Leigh to make at least some effort to fathom it.

The upshot is that I came out of Mr Turner, feeling that it was very hit-and-miss. I admired Timothy Spall’s performance for its technique, but found it disappointingly opaque. The picture doesn’t look deep into his soul, and there are quite a few times when we are left wondering if he has a soul at all.

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