Film Review: Mr Turner

Mr Turner is one of those films that is never going to really feel like it knows where it truly belongs. Mike Leigh films are never going to be blockbuster mainstream content, but Mr Turner has been garnishing enough praise and acclaim and mentions of further award success for it’s lead Timothy Spall mean that it’s been elevated higher into the public spotlight and been granted a larger big screen showing that would have usually been expected.

The problem though, is that it’s a period piece, about a seemingly famous but boring character. Ask people about J.M.W. Turner and most people will mumble something about paintings and instantly switch off. Those that can answer in any more detail, stereotypically, will fall into the one category. The “Over 65s”. This is the type of film that appeals far more greatly to my retired parents than it does to me. And that’s exactly how it proved with both my parents enquiring to see it, and myself, nonplussed but always up for a “trip to the flicks” happy to tag along.

My biggest worry though is that when you talk about historical artists, whether you are fully aware of their work or not; as clichéd as it is, you cannot help but instantly paint a picture of their style, their work, in your mind. Say: Van Gogh, Constable, Picasso and your head will fill with sunflowers, mis-positioned noses and romantic post cards. But also, your head will fill with that unfounded but fully accepted opinion of what they are like. We all believe we know how Constable would take his tea, or the type of jokes Van Gogh would like to tell.

Mike Leigh - Mr Turner

Which means, that when you get a film portraying the life of anyone famous, artificially playing with the narrative, creating elements from fiction, providing cinematic balance to the story is never going to fit quite right. And sadly, Mr Turner suffers with this problem. Mike Leigh brings his protagonist to life in a world of both fact and fiction and ends up purely muddying the water and creating an incoherent mess that is hard to follow. The film just doesn’t feel as though it fits together. It’s lots of minor events that add up to virtually nothing. There are some serious elements interlaced with a splattering of comic moments that often make no sense and feel out of place. Sly one-liners breaking the tension of a scene starched to within an inch of its life. Usually followed by an almost feral grunt from an odious Turner.

One of the big reasons for this sense of tension is actually Timothy Spall. He is in virtually every scene and should be commended for his performance, both in terms of preparation and portrayal, but really he always looks like Timothy Spall and he always sounds like Timothy Spall and when you’re CV is as long and high profile as Spall’s, as a viewer, you never descend below simply seeing Spall spitting pigment on to canvas. Not helped by the fact Spall, in reality, looks nothing like Turner.

Timothy Spall - Mr Turner

Mike Leigh also needed to either increase the tempo or be harder in the cutting room, or maybe even both. Mr Turner feels long, and while it’s running time of 150 minutes is just tripping into the extended territory of modern standards, this film feels long. Very long. Going into the film, I knew the basic outline that it was set in the last 25 years of Turner’s life, and while I didn’t know how Leigh concluded his story, as it went on the more I started to ponder how long it took for someone to die.

While I would, even cinematically, never wish anyone to die, Turner I believe, truly was the nasty piece of work that is overwhelmingly and repetitively, brought to life. He was abusive, arrogant and pathetic. And I found it amazing that during a time of rudimental law and elementary punishment, someone never played judge, jury and executioner towards Turner, let alone seemingly welcome him as openly into the higher class circles this film claims he walked in. Especially, since I don’t actually think his work is that good.

Timothy Spall - Gallery - Mr Turner

I cannot ignore, however much I try the fact that Leigh has invented his own world in which to slowly place our real life character. A world, and character that are so disengaging and despicable that you never want to return after you’ve awoken from your first visit. You never want to find out that the only bits you enjoyed were nothing more than the meanderings of fiction, the dreams of modern brain. Spall will be caught by the spotlight when the awards season comes around, but I don’t think it’s going to be anything more than a passing flash. There were better painters than Turner to share gallery space, and there are better performances in better movies than Spall’s.

4 out of 10 stars (4 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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