Movie Review: Mr. Turner

Mr. Turner can be challenging to watch, but it’s atypical yet grounded story, fully realized captivating world, and stellar cast delivers a unique biopic that defies the conventions of its genre.

Mr. Turner explores the last quarter century of the life of the great if eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall). Profoundly affected by the death of his father, loved by a housekeeper he takes for granted and occasionally exploits sexually, he forms a close relationship with a seaside landlady with whom he eventually lives incognito in Chelsea, where he dies. Throughout this, he travels, paints, stays with the country aristocracy, visits brothels, is a popular if anarchic member of the Royal Academy of Arts, has himself strapped to the mast of a ship so that he can paint a snowstorm, and is both celebrated and reviled by the public and by royalty.

Biopics tend to become self-indulgent fan pieces, Oscar bait or well-executed but neatly packaged tributes. Mr. Turner prefers to be the odd duck and stands out.

The plot is laid out in an episodic structure, focusing on the last two decades of his life. The narrative focuses on the eccentricities of Turner and consequently, what defines him as a painter. In between, the plot gives some insights about the politics and culture surrounding the art of his time.

As you’ve probably already seen in trailers, the cinematography and production design is spectacular. Dick Pope showcased a world that inspired Turner as a prolific painter. His trips to the coast and the countryside provide picturesque images that could be hung in a museum. Suzie Davis created a richly detailed period accurate production design that made perfectly framed scenes worthy of their own painting. The musical score is not period specific but still sets the mood and adds to the austere atmosphere of the movie through a poignant woodwind theme used only when necessary.

The cast all did a stellar job in bringing their characters to life. Dorothy Atkinson did well in conveying the devotion and implied sexual relationship between Hannah Danby and Turner. Marion Bailey perfectly embodied Sophia Booth’s big and resilient heart that proved to be a great contrast to the moody painter. Timothy Spall delivers a convincing personality transplant as a cantankerous piggish man whose speech is always accompanied with grunts. The rest of the cast were great in adding a mix of characters to further flesh out art appreciation in the 18th century and Turner’s world.

His career is not portrayed in the predictable rocket trajectory. He receives acclaim from his peers but that does not always guarantee a prime spot for his painting in the Academy. The novelty of his personality and paintings won’t ensure that his new artistic direction will be well received.

The movie also presents a relatable story of creative people who prefer to bury their emotions and trudge on to pursue their passion, but end up manifesting it in other not so pleasant ways. The story goes where inspiration steers Turner, may it be at the mast of a ship in the middle of a storm or an inn at the countryside to spend time with his new-found love. We get to see funny moments as he spends time with his peers – painters squabble, art critics gossip, and there’s always that one pretentious art aficionado lurking about. The movie doesn’t shy away from portraying him as an insensitive ass who would like nothing more than to push away his distractions, even his own children. This isn’t to say that the movie is glorifying the stereotype of the weird artist. In fairness to Turner, his mother was committed to an asylum during his childhood and the death of his dedicated father affectedly him deeply. 

The movie made a commendable risk at following a different path, but this also makes Mr. Turner a challenging movie to watch. It’s slow and the narrative is overly stretched to fill the running time. It doesn’t provide insights about his creative process. It didn’t provide enough insights about the art community and how it responded to his increasingly abstract works, which garnered him posthumous acclaim. Viewers who prefer The Imitation Game would find this as nothing but 150 minutes of grunting, scenery porn and art snobbery.

Overall though, this biopic successfully does what it set out to do – capture the temperament of its subject and depict his life as an individual. J.M.W. Turner is a flawed man who can only express clarity and passion through paint. He is a simpleton in the high-brow culture of art, but his illuminated landscape paintings belong in its adorned halls. Through him, the movie also gives a deeper insight of truly creative people. They don’t know what to do with themselves in a world outside their heads, but that’s because they’re better at expressing themselves in their own.

My Rating: 8.5/10

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