To be perfectly blunt, “Mr. Turner” is a hugely disappointing bore. Two hours of watching actor Timothy Spall looking and grunting like a pig is just not entertaining on any level. “Mr. Turner” gives new meaning to the phrase, “like watching paint dry”…literally. Written and directed by the usually wonderful, Mike Leigh, “Mr. Turner” is one very long look at the life and career of 19th century British artist, J. M. W. Turner (Timothy Spall).
“Mr. Turner” deals with the artist’s latter years, so he is already a renowned artist when we meet him. He lives in London with his faithful housekeeper, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) and his father, William (Paul Jesson), until his father’s death. This particular casting is very bizarre because the father looks about the same age as Turner, making one think at first that the two are brothers.
Turner’s paintings become more impressionistic over the years. Not everyone is a fan of this change as we see in an amusing scene with a young Queen Victoria’s reaction to his work. Turner and his new art are the butt of jokes several times over the course of the film, often within Turner’s earshot. While his reactions are priceless, they are most definitely not enough to sustain interest in the film. Therein lies the problem with “Mr. Turner”…there is no there, there. There’s no narrative to explain the man behind the paint brush. What caused his painting style to change? There are some extraordinary scenes of Turner strapped to a boat’s masthead so he can paint what he sees, but why did he choose to do this? The film doesn’t say. “Mr. Turner” alludes to and shows that as a human being, Turner could be quite despicable. He took some heinous (or so we are led to believe) actions within his family and we know he fathered children, but was never a real father…why? His treatment of Hannah would today be a form of sexual harassment. However, in 19th century England, everyone was far too polite to say anything publicly. Why was he like this? The only time Turner’s mood seemed to lighten was when he was around Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), the landlady of the boardinghouse where he often stayed. He became friendly (for him) with both Sophia and her husband. After her husband died, the two of them became more than friends. It’s worth noting that when he was at home in the company of his housekeeper, Turner was moody, dark and mean. When in the company of Mrs. Booth, he actually seemed to brighten a bit. It makes one wonder what might have happened if she had come into his life sooner.
Although “Mr. Turner” has received several awards and nominations, its allure simply escapes this reviewer. As Turner, Spall does nothing but stomp and grunt. When he does speak, he’s not easy to understand. The rest of the performances, save for that of Bailey, are there seemingly to show the speech and moirés of the day.
The only parts of “Mr. Turner” which are truly good are its cinematography and music. Cinematographer Dick Pope is extremely worthy of the special jury prize the Cannes Film Festival awarded him for the film’s cinematography. Gary Yershon’s weird and powerful score complements the movie beautifully.
“Mr. Turner” provides a lovely look at the beautiful work of J. M. W. Turner. It’s unfortunate that most of the film doesn’t measure up to that work.
1 ½ nuggets out of 4