Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: "Mr. Turner"

Mike Leigh is one of the few filmmakers today who deserves the title auteur, since he writes and directs movies that are always a clear representation of his own singular vision. He’s one of a kind.

Usually Leigh has focused on the unlabored grace of modern British working class characters, but for “Mr. Turner” he reaches back to tell the tale of one of the 19th century’s greatest painters, J.M.W. Turner.

Leigh goes for a very atypical approach to the biopic genre, insomuch as I’m not sure that term even still applies. It’s a portrait of the artist told almost entirely through the lens of his craft – how he went about his work, how he felt about it, how others reacted to it and how that affected him.

There is some typical biographical stuff – his colleagues, his lovers, his poor health – but everything is filtered through the art he created. This is a man who literally lived to paint.

Rather than depicting Turner as a child or young man, showing us his formative years and then having other actors take over the part as the decades go by, “Mr. Turner” begins with him already in his middle years and an established talent, and follows him for the last two decades or so of his life. The latter portion of the film is largely taken up with his transition from traditional marine landscape artistry to more abstract styles that served as an important precursor to Impressionism.

The main appeal of “Mr. Turner” is watching Timothy Spall in the title role. You probably recognize Spall from lots of supporting parts over the years, including the “Harry Potter” flicks. He’s shortish and agreeably homely and thus got pegged as a character actor, meaning he doesn’t get many leading roles (outside of Mike Leigh movies, anyway).

Spall plays Turner as a cantankerous carbuncle of a man, a self-described “gargoyle” who tramps around England with his stocky gait and impertinently puffed-out lower lip, an easel, canvas and paints perpetually tucked under his arm. He relishes his role as the “difficult artist,” using it to keep people at a distance – preferably outside his front door – so he could concentrate on his painting.

Spall emotes largely through a series of grunts and grumbles, and a few words spat out here and there with evident reluctance. Turner only really seems to come out of his shell among other artists, enjoying back-slapping and sparring with other esteemed painters at the Royal Academy of Art.

In one of many startling depictions in the movie, the artists are shown altering their paintings after they’ve already been hung for exhibit. Most people think of art as something that is begun, toiled over and then finished, but this film portrays them as inveterate tinkerers who always think a work can be improved.

Turner continues to dabble with one painting of a sea storm until it becomes a formless, but powerful, wave of hues. He continues this aesthetic with a painting of a locomotive, a landscape, and so on. The queen herself tut-tuts at this style, and soon Turner is being dismissed as having lost his mind, or at least his eyesight.

Watching Turner interact with his canvas is thrilling. He brushes, he dabs, he scrapes, he even spits into the paint and works it around with his knobby thumb to get the desired effect. Leigh gives us the artist completely transported by the creative act.

Turner’s interactions with other people, though, are stiff and labored, and these scenes tend to carry that same aspect. Turner has two grown daughters he barely acknowledges, and a live-in servant (Dorothy Atkinson) he ill-uses, in more ways than one.

At one point he falls for a rather plain widow (Marion Bailey) in a seaside town where he often goes to make sketches, and soon he’s living a double life there, known locally as “Mr. Booth.” The scene of their first sharing of intimacy has great power, in which each acknowledges the beautiful spirit the other has residing behind an ordinary fleshy fa├žade.

But their relationship remains in stasis, never evolving beyond that one moment – unlike his art, which goes through a dramatic transformation.

In a sense, “Mr. Turner” is the purest sort of portrait of the artist, concerned much more with the art he created than the person behind it. We’re left with a clear vision of the legacy J.M.W. Turner bequeathed to us. But the man himself remains blurred and indistinct.

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