Mr. Turner (2014)

Review #1,123

Director:  Mike Leigh
Cast:  Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey
Plot:  An exploration of the last quarter century of the great, if eccentric, British painter J.M.W. Turner's life.

Genre:  Biography / Drama / History
Awards:  Won Best Actor (Cannes).  Nom. for 4 Oscars - Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score.
Runtime:  150min
Rating:  M18 for some sexual content.

Coming high from a Best Actor win at Cannes, actor Timothy Spall shows his acting credentials in a superb performance as J.M.W. Turner, the 19th century British painter whose remarkable works remained oblivious to the mainstream, but whose life story should hopefully reach the consciousness of the more sophisticated movie-going crowd. 

Spall doesn't seem to have the traction and critical support to put him firmly in the Oscar race, but let's hope he earns a well-deserved nomination.  He is backed by supporting characters whose importance cannot be underestimated, particularly Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) and Sophia (Marion Bailey), who play key roles in Turner’s life. 

If Mr. Turner has set out to be an insightful biographical account of the subject's later years, it does a pretty decent job lighting up the path.  Written and directed by Mike Leigh, a filmmaker whom many have come to respect over the last two decades with works like Secrets & Lies (1996), Vera Drake (2004) and Another Year (2010), the film is decidedly elegiac in its treatment, with rare moments of off-beat humour.

Running at about 150 minutes, this rather lengthy biopic is dialogue-heavy, with bountiful ruminations on art and life.  Spall’s performance breathes life into his character, who is fairly eccentric and remarkably stubborn.  The film begins with his silhouette against the red morning sky, drawing on his beloved notepad.  That seems to be the representative image that Leigh wants us to remember Turner by.

His paintings are well preserved, and tremendously beautiful to see on the big screen, either in Turner’s private showroom, or exhibited at the grand Royal Academy’s exhibition, both recreated by Leigh in intricate detail.  As one of the more higher profile period pieces, Mr. Turner should score several Oscar nominations in art direction and costume design.  Dick Pope’s breathtaking painterly cinematography is also something to behold.

One of the most pleasant discoveries for me is the strange, haunting music by Gary Yershon, which may seem out of place at first, but slowly grows on you, evoking that elegiac and solemn tone that Leigh very much captured from the very beginning. 

Verdict:  A quite solid biopic on the great British painter that is composed yet elegiac, with breathtaking painterly cinematography.

GRADE: B+ (8/10 or 3.5 stars)

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