Mr. Turner (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

mrturner sqMr. Turner is an obstinately artful film, which wholly fits its subject.

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By now, we all know what to expect of a Mike Leigh film, don’t we? You know you’re going to get a lengthy, deep look at one or two people’s lives, sometimes historical, sometimes not, with beautiful production design and lack of strict adherence to traditional narrative structure. Leigh has a sizable fan base, mostly among the British intelligentsia, and as for me, I usually like him (Secrets & Lies, Another Year), but occasionally don’t (Topsy Turvy, Naked).

His new film, Mr. Turner, is a subject so obviously suited to Leigh’s talents, it seems strange that he didn’t make it sooner. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, it tells the story of the 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner, here played by Leigh regular Timothy Spall (or, to you lower-browed folks, Wormtail from the Harry Potter movies). More specifically, Mr. Turner covers the last part of Turner’s life. That means we don’t see him grow up; we don’t have some goofy montage of him getting in the groove of making great art; we don’t see him sell his first painting and click his heels together in glee. He’s already established and powerful; he’s already debated; he’s already bristling at what’s expected of him—all while he goes to ever greater lengths to churn out ever greater pieces.

Mr. Turner relies directly on the presence of the actor who plays Turner, as the film is loose enough not to count on some of the more obvious hooks. Its narrative isn’t always terribly clear (which is a choice, not a mistake), and there isn’t a ton of footage of Turner painting. (The movie spends most of its running time on Turner’s various affairs, from his housemaid to a widow he meets out of town to plain old prostitutes.) What’s more, while the characterization of Turner is strong, most of that doesn’t come through dialogue—he’s a very grunty man—so the required-to-be-strong actor can’t lean heavily on witty lines or brilliant monologues. 

And it’s here that Mr. Turner works. The first half-hour is a little slow and doesn’t bode well for the rest of the long runtime, but once you get used to Spall’s physicality in the role and the way you feel like you know what he’s thinking even when he’s acting strangely and not explaining himself, the rest of the film becomes quite enjoyable.

Another thing the film very much gets right is its mise-en-scène, attributable to production designer Suzie Davies and cinematographer Dick Pope (the former new to Mr. Leigh, the latter a common collaborator). This is the sort of film where, if you have much in the way of an artistic sensibility, I would expect you to enjoy it overall if only for the way it looks, even if you never find a way into the characters.

With that in mind, Mr. Turner is an obstinately artful film, which wholly fits its subject. That’s a nice way of saying that if you have a short attention span or are generally afraid of art house films, you probably won’t like this—but that, of course, doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty to admire. | Pete Timmermann

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