Nutshell: I give Mr. Turner an A-. I hate this movie, and I applaud the hell out of it. An amazing, disgusting, warts-and-all performance shot as if every frame was it’s own work of art. And it is.
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I enjoy art, but I don’t know much about it other than what I like to look at, and what I don’t. The art of J.M.W. Turner is alive with color, shadows and emotion. But Turner himself was a hard man to stomach, if the film Mr. Turner is to be believed. [And it seems as though he may have been much colder and brutish than this film allows.] For folks like me who are new to the particulars of this artist, Wikipedia sums up his massive contribution to the art world nicely:
“Turner was considered a controversial figure in his day, but is now regarded as the artist who elevated landscape painting to an eminence rivalling history painting…. He is commonly known as ‘the painter of light’ and his work is regarded as a Romantic preface to Impressionism.”
Unfortunately, while his work is undeniably beautiful, the life he lived was anything but. A libertine, he cared little for rules of the day, or “proper decorum”. And director Mike Leigh shies away from none of it, giving us a look at a man who may have been a brute, but created beauty.
I was sorely tempted to pan the film simply because the man this film uncovers is such an icky dichotomy: he belches, snuffles and wantonly grabs his way through his life with reckless abandon. He’s nobody’s baby, save for the father who is his Guy Friday and artistic squire; barely acknowledged by Turner, and yet the old man adores the schlub. Turner disavows his own children, gives no thought to those who care for him, and speaks in a series of grunts and tossed off comments. At first, I didn’t know what to make of the film; why should I care about such an appalling, borderline feral human being?
And then I thought about the film for a while. It’s not that Mr. Turner is a bad film. It’s the opposite. It’s an absolutely brilliant film about an absolutely abominable man. Leigh pinpoints the artist’s later years and gives us a glimpse into Turner’s process. Mr. Turner shows the split between Turner the man and Turner the creator, and asks us to consider the possibility of light and dark within one person. The film’s Turner is a man who only has enough emotion for his work, and all he has goes to it. There are moments — times with his final partner, Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), and after the death of his daughter — where he lets the curtain behind his eyes drop. (And even then he’s appaling, crying like a dying seal.) But for the most part, he blusters through life with little regard. And Timothy Spall’s performance as Turner is riveting. I can’t say it’s amazing, or glorious, as it’s such an authentic performance that it’s difficult to watch at times. That doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s truly exceptional.
What’s also exceptional is Dick Pope’s glorious cinematography. It’s as if each shot is framed to be a work of art, like Turner’s paintings. Blocking, set design, lighting…it’s all as if the actors and scenery are posed for portraiture. If the film had frozen at any time, I’d have been happy to stare at a frame of the thing for several minutes, drinking it all in. Glad to see he got an Academy Award nomination to add to the list of accolades he’s already received for this film.
Single minded. Unthinking. Uncaring. Self-centered. Focused. So why does he paint? What moves him? That’s the only question I wish Mr. Turner had answered. There’s obviously a call to him to create, but it’s never really fleshed out. Perhaps that’s because the man himself never explained himself. He may have been a disgusting lump of a man, but Mr. Turner proves that beauty can be found in the least of things, or maybe in the story of a man whose inherent ugliness hit a gift of true beauty.