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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Mr. Turner movie review: in the concrete abstract


This is no stuffy costume drama but a richly lived-in visit to early-19th-century England that is rough, bawdy, often funny, and more often unsettling.
I’m “biast” (pro): I always expect greatness from Mike Leigh

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I don’t know much about the painter J.M.W. Turner except that he was a precursor to the Impressionists, that his work, which we can see today was an early transitional sort of abstract, inspired future generations of artists to represent the world in ways that had never been imagined before.

Even this foundational basic is not the sort of thing that Mr. Turner cares to share with us. As grand as it is — the film frequently borrows the epic look and feel of Turner’s sweeping landscapes — history and scholarship are not its concerns. This is an intimate film that says little and speaks volumes… much like, we come to see, the man himself. In one sublime scene, destined to become a little slice of classic cinema (as the whole film is), Billy, as he calls himself, listens patiently as a fan — a snooty manchild of privilege and learning but of little intelligence or insight — waxes what he thinks is poetic about Turner’s canvases. The painter endures this pretentious claptrap without even seeming to be annoyed by it; it’s as if what he is hearing has no impact on him whatsoever, and is merely a thing to be politely sat out until he can get back to work.

The work, we begin to gather, is everything to Turner, who otherwise expresses himself almost entirely though grunting. There’s a subtle, earthy groundedness to Mr. Turner: this is no stuffy costume drama but a richly lived-in visit to early-19th-century England that is rough, bawdy, often funny, and more often unsettling. Turner may have been a great artist — we see that even during his lifetime, his groundbreaking work has at least as many vehement supporters as scornful detractors — but he was kind of a terrible person. If he was a man of few words and deep emotions, those emotions are frequently unpleasant, or at least complicated and contradictory. He is cruelly indifferent to his housekeeper, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson: Topsy-Turvy), who is clearly quietly in love with him, even as he uses her sexually; yet he is tender with the woman who eventually becomes his mistress, the widower Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey: Vera Drake), though his attentions to her are at best terse. His most doting and physically affectionate relationship seems to be with his father, William (Paul Jesson), who works as his studio assistant, stretching canvases and mixing paints; Turner still calls him “Daddy,” and I think he’s the only person we see Turner kiss onscreen.

There barely seems to be any sort of “performance” to how Timothy Spall (The Love Punch, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2) inhabits Turner. Neither he nor writer-director Mike Leigh (Happy-Go-Lucky, Vera Drake) attempt to apologize for or even explain the artist: they just show us his life and let his hardscrabble intelligence and unspoken passion shine out of his sour-pickle face. The film’s marvelous understatement and unwillingness to drag the viewer in the direction of any particular emotion sometimes results, though it sounds unlikely, in small moments becoming wonderfully, sometimes hilariously legendary. In one delightful scene, one of the most memorable in a memorable film, he meets with the “natural philosopher” Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville: Maleficent, An Adventure in Space and Time) and observes her demonstration of a prism; we learn here how to recognize eagerness and intellectual engagement on Turner’s part: his eyes light up, and that’s about it. Later, a brief scene in which Turner and his fellow painter John Constable (James Fleet: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, The Phantom of the Opera) grudgingly acknowledge each other at a presentation of new canvases at the Royal Academy of Art utilizes only two words of dialogue — one from each man — and body language to scream out worlds of rivalry.

Somerville praises Turner and his work by telling him, “The universe is chaotic and you make us see it.” The subdued chaos of Mr. Turner, in which nastiness and beauty, thorniness and simplicity sit side by side, seems a perfect tribute to the man.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Mr. Turner for its representation of girls and women.

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Mr. Turner (2014)
US/Can release: Dec 19 2014
UK/Ire release: Oct 31 2014

MPAA: rated R for some sexual content
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate sex, sex references)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Beowulf

    C’mon, don’t hold back–you liked it, didn’t you?
    I’m snobby: Timothy Spall is one of those actors I’ve liked for ages because he is pitch perfect, whether a goodie, a baddie, or a sack of potatoes. Sounds wonderful. VOD since it will never play at the local Moronplex.

  • LaSargenta

    My mother had a print of one of Turner’s Venice paintings when I was a kid. Turner, Stubbs and Nolde, those were her big 3 favorite painters, we had several prints of their work at home — and she frequently had long discussions with people about art (paintings, sculpture, movies, poetry, novels, plays, music…). I had seen several at a museum where we lived and liked them, especially the ones at sea (I have always liked the sea). So, between Turner being a part of my home life and the discussions overheard amongst people who seemed to not think of him as obscure, I came to use his name as an aesthetic reference, as a simile since his painting was unlike anyone else’s, and caused a huge problem with a small descriptive writing assignment in 7th grade. The teacher (new that year at our school) had never heard of him, I didn’t get a good grade on the assignment, and my mother hit the roof. I think she went off on the headmaster and was one of the reasons that teacher didn’t return the following year. I’ve always felt uneasy about that since; but, my mother was a bit of a force of nature and certainly out of my control.

    Anyhow, as much as I like Turner, any reference to him and I feel a twinge of guilt for that teacher whose name I cannot even remember now.

    I will, though, most likely see this movie.

  • Beowulf

    Spall and Cumberbatch were both on the Graham Norton show here on Saturday night. Gotta catch both performances and films. (I wish an American talk show would follow this show’s lead and bring everyone out at the same time and have sit on the couch and talk.)

  • I saw that. *Imitation Game* review coming soon!

  • Dick Van Dyke

    The Margate scenes were shot at Cawsand, in the county of Cornwall, England. A picturesque and pleasant village to this day. An interesting way to get there is to take the Cawsand Ferry from Plymouth…just in case anyone felt like paying a visit.

  • First ever spam from a local tourist board!

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