The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Review: Mr. Turner (UK Cert 12A)

A biopic of famed English painter J.M.W. Turner might not, at first glance, seem like the most likely subject for director Mike Leigh to take on. Leigh is known for his improvisational films dealing with contemporary issues, but- as films like Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake show- he is comfortable in a period setting. 

Mr. Turner follows the last quarter century of Turner's life, from his life in London with his beloved father, William Sr, (Paul Jesson) and housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), to his relationship later in life with Sophia Booth, a widowed Margate landlady (Marion Bailey). It's episodic in nature but held together by a remarkable central performance by Timothy Spall as the titular Turner.

Spall won the Best Actor award at this year's Cannes Film Festival and it's not difficult to see why. He totally inhabits the role and yet gives such a grounded and unshowy performance. Turner is undeniably a brilliant painter but quite a rough character, concerned with his art and little else. He barely acknowledges his illegitimate daughters, giving them little more than the most perfunctory of attentions (in one of the funniest scenes of the film). He uses Hannah for his own gratification but doesn't seem to care much for her. However, there are moments of levity- his relationship with his father is nicely done (the interplay between Spall and Jesson is great and their relationship is believable), he seems the life and soul of the Royal Academy of Arts and there is a lovely understated nature to his relationship with Sophia. There's also a tremendous scene toward the end of the film where he rebuffs the offer of a private seller which is just a brilliant moment. Is Spall's performance worthy of an Oscar nomination? I'm not sure, but it is certainly one of the best given by one of Britain's most underrated actors. 

Other performances are similarly strong: Jesson, Atkinson and Bailey all give great performances as the most important people in Turner's life. Lesley Manville is great in a cameo role as natural scientist Mary Somerville (who Turner helps with an experiment on light refraction) whilst  David Horovitch gives a good turn as Turner's doctor. 

Leigh's script is absolutely loquacious with long, intricate sentences for even the most basic of social greetings. It's initially quite tough to cope with but you soon get into the flow of speech. The film is a real feast for the eyes. Dick Pope's cinematography is just spectacular, with luscious shots of landscapes, seas and towns that is just sublime. All the costumes are similarly exquisite.

It occasionally veers into the indulgent and there are some scenes that feel a little extraneous, padding up the running time to two-and-a-half hours. I feel a ittle judicious cutting would not have gone amiss- for example, a scene where Turner sits through an excruciating conversation about gooseberries could easily go- and the impact of the film would not be lost. That said, it's a handsome film and a great performance by Spall so it's definitely worth your time.

Rating: 4 out of 5


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