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Mr. Turner - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Mr. Turner
Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: C
Cinematography: A
Editing: C+

Maybe you have to be familiar with the art of J.M.W. Turner, who I had never heard of but evidently existed, to truly appreciate the latest by writer-director Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner. God knows, critics are falling over themselves praising the film, and frankly I don't get it. It's overlong, yet curiously incomplete. Leigh's 1999 film about Gilbert & Sullivan, Topsy Turvy, was even longer -- and far more captivating. Take it from me and rent that movie instead. It's worth watching.

I'm betraying my bias here, I admit; I love Gilbert & Sullivan, and am indifferent to mid-nineteenth-century English paintings of ships in the sea, of which Turner evidently painted a lot. As in, exclusively, so far as we can tell from this movie. And both Mr. Turner and Topsy Turvy are films that linger on their subject matter, long and quiet tales of eccentric artists. Which one you like better might just depend on whether you prefer paintings or pointedly silly operas.

A key difference, however, is the amount of story detail left out of Mr. Turner. Is that a wife he abandoned, who keeps showing up at his house demanding he acknowledge the grown daughter standing before him? What's the story behind his erratic groping of the woman who I suppose is his maid, and what's with the blotches that develop all over her face through the years? These things are never made clear, even though it's made clear enough that these women are pivotal to his story.

Perhaps we're just meant to understand Turner lived in his own little world, at the expense of others. The one character in the film with some genuine charm is Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), with whom he embarks on a late-in-life affair at her home in which he rents a room for painting in seclusion. We never find out how much about him Mrs. Booth ever truly comes to know. How she can be seduced by Turner remains a mystery, given how Timothy Spall plays him as a nearly intolerable character.

Spall is a celebrated actor generating claims of this being a career-high performance. But simply getting a lead part is not enough. Spall is indeed a great talent, but it's not always evident here, as he reduces Turner to a series of grunts, punctuated by snorting during sex with his maid, and spitting on the canvas while he paints. He walks through most of the film frowning and squinting, as though that's what gave Turner his gruff personality.

The one genuinely redeeming value to Mr. Tuner is a big one: it's visually gorgeous, with possibly the greatest cinematography of the year. In scene after scene, many of them lasting only a matter of seconds, we are offered a feast for the eyes so evocative that one could argue they surpass the beauty of his paintings themselves. It would be difficult to tell the difference, except that he's almost never on a boat. In one scene, the camera starts on the side of a snow-covered mountain, and I actually thought it was the frozen waters of one of his paintings, until the camera panned down to see the surprisingly well-defined rocks.

This succession of cinematic works of art, paintings rendered live, are consistent throughout the film. Would that this alone could save the movie. Mr. Turner is otherwise an old-school conventional "prestige picture" for which the Academy Award nominations for Cinematography, Production Design and Costume Design are unsurprising -- but the same could be said for the lack of any writing, directing or acting nominations. The acting, generally speaking, is adequate at best. And the dialogue carries the constant suggestion of greater depth, which never materializes.

There are just enough scenes that, when taken on their own, suddenly become quite compelling. But collectively they never add up to a complete whole. It's like the editor deleted scenes without any regard for narrative consistency. To call the visual palette beautiful would be an understatement, but it's not enough to sustain the film's 150-minute run time.

Timothy Spall frowns and squints his way through MR. TURNER.

Overall: B-
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