Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh's chronicle of the last 25 years in the life of painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), is most notable not for its slow pacing, outstanding acting, or accurate period detail, but for the cinematography by Dick Pope. Pope, who has collaborated with Leigh on nine previous features, frequently steals the spotlight from Timothy Spall and the supporting cast with amazing images that evoke Turner's style. The film is intricately composed using the shadows created by natural lighting and some of the most astonishing sunsets and landscapes ever captured on screen. Pope's work is immersive and allows viewers to become engaged in a story that occasionally moves a little too slowly.
Mr. Turner reaffirms that there often exists a wide gulf between creator and creation. The pre-Thomas Kinkade "painter of light," Turner the artist was revered during his lifetime and after it for the intensity of color, shadow, and contrast in his work. He was feted around the world. Turner the man, however, was something of a curmudgeon - uncomfortable and disagreeable around his two illegitimate daughters and their mother (Ruth Sheen), willing to use the affection of his maid (Dorothy Atkinson) for easy sexual relief, and rarely showing much in the way of human kindness. Spall may have gone through the entire film without smiling once and when Leigh first turns his camera on Mr. Turner early in the proceedings, he looks like an escapee from a Dickens novel.
Leigh, directing in his usual low-key style, is careful never to turn Mr. Turner's life into the sudsy stuff of a 19th century costume soap opera. The material, which could have formed the basis of an overripe melodrama, is presented almost clinically. We see the close bond between the painter and his father, William (Paul Jesson); his hasty, animalistic trysts with his maid; his trips to the seaside where he stays incognito and forms a relationship with his landlady (Marion Bailey); his acerbic encounters with his first lover, Sarah; and his decline in health at the end of his life. Above all, however, Leigh highlights his painting - not only the results but the process. Spall reportedly spent two years practicing to be able to lend authenticity to this aspect of his performance.
This is the second time Leigh has fashioned a story around historical events. The result isn't quite as engaging as his previous such foray, Topsy Turvy, but it's more interesting for what it reveals about the period than the title character. Turner is, in fact, less interesting than his work, and he is surrounded by people and places that capture the attention more fully. This is intentional and is part of the genius of Spall's acting. Although he is unquestionably the lead, he repeatedly allows himself to be upstaged, most often by Pope's photography. In the end, it almost seems as if Mr. Turner is about everything in and around Turner's life except the individual. The movie's tone is emotionally neutral so, when Turner dies at the end, we don't feel much in the way of loss or remorse.
Leigh's style and approach are languid. Many of his takes are long and there are multiple instances in which actions occur with little sound and less dialogue. Leigh and Pope take the "painting" aspect of Turner's life seriously, allowing it to bleed into every aspect of the film, which is a more compelling visual experience than an emotional one. At 150 minutes, it's a little too long but there are stretches during its course when it captivates and amazes.
© 2015 James Berardinelli