Mr. Turner (2014)

Not an ordinary painter, not a simple style.

Not an ordinary painter, not a simple style.

Dir.: Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh has made a film that would have been very difficult to pull off for a lesser filmmaker, but  it is most unlike any Mike Leigh film thus far.He is an auteur in the true sense of the term, his biting social dramas focussing on the often marginalised sections of British society have firmly established him as one of the most important British Filmmakers of all time.His films are small and intimate and harness the powers of his actors and focus them like a laser beam.He has a unique workshop method of filmmaking where the not only the script but the story also evolves from working with actors.

Mr Turner is a handsomely mounted period biopic, but because the director is Mike Leigh and the lead actor is Timothy Spall, this film soars above the tropes of the genre.Indeed there are some spectacular sets, but for the most part the camera lingers over Mr Spalls formidable and grubby frame.We get a pulsating portrait of a painter who achieved success during his life but whose vision and work were clearly ahead of its time.

We meet Mr Turner silhouetted in the fields of rural Holland, at the crack of dawn, almost blending into the scenery, making pencil notes for a study of a windmill, while a couple of Dutch milkmaids walk by.When he returns home, we meet his best friend and foil, his loving father who also serves as his full-time assistant.This father son relationship, where we understand that Turners father is his emotional anchor, dominates the first half of the film.That his father is his only friend leads us to understand that while Turner is the master of his art, he is severely socially challenged and somewhat emotionally blocked.Most disarmingly his social patter is quite up-to scratch, where we expect rudeness and gruff behaviour, we find politeness and good manners.

He loves, but in his own way.

He loves, but in his own way.

Timothy Spalls embodiment and internalisation of Turner is what makes the film work. He plays Turner as a part of the same force of nature which he captures magnificently in his paintings of  stormy seas and ship wrecks.Turner speaks with some effort and punctuates his words with grunts. There is something constantly churning and brewing inside him, and Timothy Spalls burning eyes provide the window into his troubled soul.One is always interested in understanding what is the source of an artists work, here Mike Leigh locates it deep inside the guts of Timothy Spall, a gifted man who did nothing else except feed that fire in his own organic way.

The personal story of Turner is incidental, foregrounded is an artist who knows nothing else apart from painting. He satisfies his bodily urges with rough and almost brutal sex with his housemaid and later in life, in a more gentle manner with a widow with whom he spent his final years.He derives all his emotional succour from his father but literally disowns his own children from a failed marriage. For him painting comes from inside, we see him spit with force on wet paint to play with colours. The narrative is episodic in nature, and with its quick cuts between times and space, refreshingly makes little attempt to smoothen out his life into a three act structure. Music is sparingly used, the symphony of paint on canvas is what we experience.Cinematography is critical in a film about a painter and Dick Pope(nice name!) certainly delivers a visually feast.

The film suffers only at the precise points where we become aware that this is an artificially created period film, but those moments are very few.Since Mike Leigh has chosen a relatively lesser known British painter I was very curious about the treatment.We get the portrait of a consummate artist from another accomplished artist and makes for a deeply satisfying moviegoing experience.

#Timothy Spall won Best Actor Award for this role at Cannes Film Festival 2014. 

Categories: World Cinema

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1 reply

  1. Nice review. Note though – Turner is not lesser known: he also turns up in Wiseman’s National Gallery. The cast in this film are excellent.
    My only reservation was the music, which at times approached the sort of treartment we get in heritage films.

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