by Coop Cooper
Arriving this week to DVD is an Academy Award-nominated film which did not get as much hype as the rest. “Mr. Turner”, a biographical drama directed by Mike Leigh, received nominations for cinematography, costume design, original score and production design, although it won none of these categories. With the exception of the score, I’d say it could’ve been a strong contender in three of those categories, but the film simply couldn’t compete with the more interesting of last year’s nominees.
In the early 1800’s in Britain, J. M. W. Turner (Timothy Spall) excels as a celebrated painter of Romanticist landscapes, water colors and maker of prints. His warm relationship with his father (Paul Jesson) contrasts with his chilly and estranged relationship with the mother (Ruth Sheen) of his two daughters… neither of which he wishes to claim. His blustery personality both offends and enraptures his peers as his expertise and works are esteemed at the highest levels of European society. He takes sexual advantage of his long-suffering, yet loyal housemaid (Amy Dawson) and he eventually begins to ignore her when he falls into depression after the death of his father. His want for occasional anonymity leads him to rent a room under a pseudonym by the seaside in Chelsea where he finds a kindred spirit in his landlady, the twice widowed Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). The two form a romantic relationship until his death eighteen years later.
The most remarkable part of this film is the Oscar-nominated cinematography which was shot/colored to resemble Turner’s landscape painting style. The story itself proceeds at a slow and steady pace, giving the viewer insight into the surroundings, the time-period and the lifestyle of the people of the era. It also gives a glimpse into Turner’s everyday life, his relationships, his opinions on art and his battle against his own demons and ailing health.
One of the film’s more amusing and distressing moments happens when a group of his former admirers completely turn on him when he departs from his form. A stuck-up noblewoman looks at a minimalist effort by the painter and loudly declares it “vile” and “dirty”, which is hilarious considering it’s a very simple landscape painting. The community turns on him, even lampooning his new work in satirical plays, driving him into a fit of alcoholism and depression.
There is another interesting scene where Turner goes to get his picture taken by daguerreotype in order to understand the new medium which might one day eclipse his own. After asking a number of questions and staying still for eighteen seconds, Turner looks dour after the photographer declares the taking of the photo is ‘finished’, to which Turner replies, “I feel as though I am finished.”
The most important scene comes when Turner turns down 100,000 pounds from a private investor to buy all of his paintings, an astronomically large sum, especially for back then. Turner’s reason: He wants to be able to see them in a British museum and he wants the general public to have access to them as well.
Spall, probably best known as the villainous ‘Wormtail’ in the “Harry Potter” films, gives a somewhat over-the-top performance. As Turner, he speaks in a sort of ‘grunting’ manner that is sometimes annoying and difficult to penetrate. It worked best when he was in a good mood, chatting people up and being pleasant, but when his mood darkened, a prolonged grunt was all he could muster to acknowledge anything said to him. While I do like Spall and thought he made the character his own, the incessant grunting seemed a bit much.
The film, much like the act of painting itself, requires patience and appreciation of its artistry. It’s slow and not exciting in the least but through its photography it does embody some of the same beauty of Turner’s own paintings. Mike Leigh’s stylistic choices are known to be be uncomfortable and sometimes off-putting. Here he doesn’t paint Turner as some sort of great person, but more of a heavily flawed man who could be a terrible human being at certain points. I particularly disliked the minimalist (and Oscar-nominated) score that sounded like it belonged in a horror movie as opposed to a prestige period film. The film is not for all tastes, but those interested in art, England in the early 1800’s, great photography, great costumes and great production design should seek out “Mr. Turner” on DVD.
3 out of 5 stars