Leonardo da who?
Meet British painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) a very quiet, peaceful man who goes about his day casually painting landscapes, grunting, and trying to get his paintings sold to the highest bidder, whoever they may be. Though Turner definitely has some issues with his personal life that need to be attended to, the man still has very little to worry about. That is, until a close one of his dies and leaves J.M.W. all alone, with hardly anyone to care for, or even love. He’s just by himself, with his studio, his landscapes, and his paint-brushes. However, Mr. Turner wants a little something more out of life that isn’t just all about pleasing people with his beautiful, artistic creations; he wants a sort of connection and love that he can only get with another fellow human-being. He gets this in the form of the equally lonely Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey) who, despite what he may or may not think, is his best opportunity in life to live happy, once and for all. Around this time, too, Mr. Turner develops a knack for a different style of painting; one that some can consider to be the early days of “expressionism”. But with every new change in life, there’s usually a problem lurking behind.
Writer/director Mike Leigh doesn’t make the kind of movies you’d find yourself getting excited for. The reason being? Well, for the most part, Leigh’s films are typically casual, normal pieces that don’t really try to break the barriers of modern-day cinema, so much so as they just present a little snapshot into everyday life. Though he likes to change things up every once and awhile, usually, Leigh prefers to stick to his guns and keep his movies simple, easy-to-understand, and as true-to-life as he can possibly make it. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as much as it’s just a thing, and proves Leigh to be one of the better writers and directors we have out there today in the movie world.
Which is why Mr. Turner works as well as it does, even if it is a bit of a change-of-pace for the likes of Leigh. However, it isn’t a huge change that finds him shaking up his style and ruining the rest of his flick; more or less, it finds him diving deep into the life of J.M.W. Turner – a painter you may, or may not have, heard of before. Regardless of whether you have or not, Leigh still finds ways to make Turner’s life interesting and compelling, even if you don’t totally know it while the movie’s playing.
Like I said before, Leigh’s films are simple and mostly casual pieces that give us snapshots into people’s lives, regardless of if we wanted to see these shots or not. Here, with Turner’s life, we see something of a very simple man who may have more to him than we originally expect. We know that he’s a painter, has a thing for unexpectedly acting sexual with women, and isn’t totally likable. However, that doesn’t faze Leigh, as he continues to develop this person more and more, giving us a clear, yet compelling look into the life of a man who, quite frankly, I didn’t know too much about before or even care to, either.
However, what Leigh does that’s so spectacular is that he makes us care and it works for the movie as a whole.
Although, like with most of Leigh’s other films, there is a slight feeling that this movie may be a bit longer than it should be. Mr. Turner, in full, clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half-hours and I’m not too sure that I needed to see/have every single minute of that time-limit. That’s not to say that Leigh doesn’t use this time to his advantage, but it is to say that he could have maybe cut-down on a few subplots that seemed like they were going somewhere, but ultimately, didn’t.
The one that comes to my mind so clearly concerns Turner’s maid Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) who he, sometimes, randomly jumps on her for both sexual and stress-releasing purposes. Every time a scene like this is shown to us, it makes sense why Leigh’s showing us this aspect of his life, but it never makes full, total sense as to why we’re being shown this from her point-of-view every so often. She’s made out to be more of an important character, than she actually is, and it’s very evident in the final half-hour of this when we realize that Turner’s life may be coming to a close, and we’re supposed to feel upset for everybody involved with his life. The problem was, I did, but just not for her character.
Once again though, none of this really has to do with the person playing the character (Atkinson is quite good in a thinly-written role that seems like it could have gone deeper, had the movie been about a different person), but more so with Leigh’s style and pace, which lingers more towards feeling “languid”, than meandering. But this isn’t a huge problem for the movie as a whole, considering that Leigh brings enough depth to Turner himself, as well as his life, where we feel like we know this person and understand maybe why this story is being brought to our attention. Even if Turner’s life wasn’t all that spectacular and was sort of just a normal, rich one, albeit with more art involved, there’s still a feeling that whatever Leigh sees in Turner’s life and legacy, is something extraordinary. Though not all of that comes off of the screen and into our own minds while watching, it’s still noticeable enough that it works in making Turner a sympathetic, if sometimes very flawed, person.
This definitely comes out a bit in Leigh’s writing, but a good part of it definitely comes out in Timothy Spall’s wonderfully determined performance as the biopic’s subject, even if it doesn’t seem like he’s doing much at first. Spall may not be a recognizable face to most of those out there, but the guy’s been a solid character actor for as long as I can remember watching him work and it’s about time that he got a role that was rightfully deserving of his sometimes down-played talents. What Spall does well here as Turner, is that he doesn’t make it seem like this is the kind of guy we should like, but by showing us that there is something of a sweet and tender soul inside that gruff outlook of his, we get a better understanding of who he is and why he paints.
Though, this is a very subtle performance from Spall and one that, I assume, won’t garner a huge amount of Oscar-attention, for the sole sake that he never quite has that huge, dramatic, “Oscar acting moment”. Sure, there’s a couple of instances in which he breaks down, cries, and seems incredibly vulnerable, but those moments don’t happen too much, nor did they need to in order to have us feel more Turner and his life we’re seeing portrayed on the screen. Simply put, Turner is just a man who enjoys painting – whatever other thought, rhyme, or reason he may put into it, is totally left up to us to decide. It’s a smart choice on Leigh’s part for not over-playing this hand, but it’s also one on Spall’s for bringing out plenty of shades within this character that we may not have seen right before.
Here’s to hoping that not only does the movie get more attention, but Spall does as well and makes him more of a household name.
Consensus: Though it’s long and often slow, Mr. Turner is never boring, nor does it ever shy away from getting down to the nitty and gritty aspects of its subject’s life, even if it may or may not be totally pertinent to whatever message Mike Leigh is trying to get across.
8 / 10 = Matinee!!