Mr. Turner (2014)
Dir: Mike Leigh
Academy Award Nominations: Cinematography. Production Design. Costume Design. Original Score.
There’s one of those often given lines, that if you looked at every painting in the Louvre for so many seconds, it would take ever so many years to see them all. This film reminded me of that, and how I’d rather spend my time looking at a few good pieces for a while and appreciating all the detail rather than just glance everything and move on too quickly to appreciate it.
This is a beautifully designed biographical period drama, covering a large chunk of painter J. M. W. Turner’s adult life in the 19th century, from the height of his success through to the end of his life.
I should probably start by saying I’m not particularly fond of period dramas such as this, not that I can’t or don’t ever enjoy them, more that I don’t seek them out or watch them very often, and as such I feel that I may not be well-tuned to what constitutes a particularly good one. However, I can appreciate how well they recreate the look and feel of the period with the sets, costumes, and the dialogue. I also can tell that they’re particularly effective if they draw me in to being interested. On those criteria, this is partially successful.
Mike Leigh does occasionally make period pieces, for example his 1999 film ‘Topsy-Turvy’ about Gilbert and Sullivan. This is an earlier period than Leigh has shown before, and also a longer one, whereas ‘Topsy Turvy’ focused on a particular event within the space of a year, this covers a lot longer than that, around 24 years. This features quite a few of his usual collaborators, who he clearly has a lot of confidence in, and who are familiar with his way of working. In this film, Leigh has again employed his usual technique of rehearsing with the actors, helping them create the characters, then shooting the film without a script so the dialogue is improvised. This may be partly the reason for Timothy Spall’s Turner often responding to questions with expressive grunts and grumbles. There are also moments of the extreme opposite, many odd conversations take place in which the period language is in abundance, as is some very flamboyant speech. Turner seems to regularly reference Greek gods and mythology in describing things, and has moments of great expression that contrast strongly with his other periods, often when working, in which he honestly does just grunt.
Timothy Spall is very good in the central role, really captivating throughout. He goes from bouts of curmudgeonly grunts, to a brief bit of singing, via some very expressive language. The moments in which he shows deep emotion are his strongest, Spall does reflective looks very well, he tears up a few times and cries uncontrollably once, moved by the death of his very supportive father who he was clearly closer to than anyone else. Spall also brilliantly conveys Turner’s varied relationships with women, most interesting of which is a previous lover Mrs Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) with whom Turner had two daughters. She only appears twice, but her whole demeanour and attitude towards him is amazing, the performance is completely scene stealing and I’d have loved a lot more of this, especially as there’s much unsaid about the situation, with Turner denying having children a number of times in the film. He also has relationships shown with his long time housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), and later with Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey), with whom Turner lived as if married. She calls him “a man of great spirit and fine feeling”, and seems to be very loved by Turner. When he’s tied to the mast of a ship in a storm and ends up ill, when his health declines in later years, she’s the one he goes to and she cares well for him. In doing so he essentially forgets his loving housekeeper, and leaves two women behind when he dies.
Apart from his relationships with women, the film explores his work, with much relating to the Royal Academy of Arts and his paintings being displayed in their gallery. These scenes feature exchanges with other famous artists, mainly discussing their art, though they say there’s method in his madness, Turner does seem to become the butt of jokes. He keeps on working though, sometimes showing his very hands-on painting techniques. The film briefly shows quite a lot of the work, especially when we see the viewing room at his home that gets dilapidated after his father dies as he was the one skilled at talking to people and selling. There’s also a depiction of famous critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), who’s an interesting figure who often makes appearances in films about this period in art history, there was one a few months ago about his wife Effie. Again sadly, I feel that introducing such an interesting character only briefly seems a little bit of a shame.
In his later years Turner is shown with ailing health, and struggling with a decline in interest for his work. He turns down a huge offer for all of his work, which is a reference to his wishes for his paintings after he dies, though this isn’t really explored deeply. He’s shown to be interested in the technical side of photography but fears that it will be the end for him and his craft, the only saving grace is the use of colour that alludes photography. In this period of his life his dialogue is even more grunts than usual, yet he still says a few powerful things especially when on his deathbed he says he’s become a nonentity. It’s then that we realise we’re watching a film about him over a century and a half later, so really his work has been more successful than he thought it would be.
It’s a beautifully crafted film which makes it lovely to look at, especially as a main theme throughout is colour, there’s lots of talk of colour and how important it is, and the film makes good use of it too. A few of the shots are like Turner’s paintings, really beautiful landscapes that show his inspiration. The costumes, interiors and exteriors are also all fantastic and these aspects are the ones most being praised and gaining award nominations for the film, especially Dick Pope’s cinematography, though his work has been somewhat overshadowed by an unfortunate incident misreading his name at the Oscars nomination announcement! The biggest shock regarding awards is that Timothy Spall isn’t nominated for his role at either the BAFTAs or the Oscars, it’s quite surprising, his performance is excellent.
For me, I think the film could be much shorter, it really got going more interestingly in the second half, but a few trims of half an hour would have suited me better, though that’s just a reflection of my personal taste. It covers a large chunk of his life, but without really focusing for very long on much that was specifically dramatic or a turning point, there were many smaller pivotal moments featured. From what I’ve read about Turner the film does do well to allude to so many important facts, but I was left wanting something deeper rather than so all-encompassing. I’d much prefer a few aspects deeply developed than all aspects developed to varying degrees.