I regret not liking Mr Turner. I’m afraid I regret having seen Mr Turner.
I was really looking forward to this film. It was the first film I’d seen in the cinema since Boyhood in August this year. Furthermore, it was going to be the first film by Mike Leigh I’d ever seen. As I settled into my seat and the lights went down, I was expecting a dramatic, informative retelling of the story of one of the world’s greatest, most influential artists while remaining an artistic statement by an auteur director. What I got was a vague, dull, unfocused artistic mess.
The great artist in question is JMW Turner (Timothy Spall), a successful British Romantic landscape artist, active during the late eighteenth and early-to-mid nineteenth centuries. The film deals with the latter twenty-five years of his life, when he must deal with the death of his father, the estrangement of his family, falling popularity, failing eyesight, and a lonely, turbulent private life.
I understand Mike Leigh’s style is to ad-lib vignettes in the story with the actors at the time of filming, an approach which I appreciate and admire. However, I believe this technique would be most effective in a film set over a short period of time, possibly a day to a week. By applying this approach to twenty-five years of a man’s life, the vignettes become scattered in a haphazard fashion. People come and go without learning their first names, Turner does things but we are unsure what for, the significance of important events is lost without any set-up or acknowledgement of their significance later on, and a disproportionate amount of time is wasted with characters we couldn’t care less about engaged in idle chat.
All this gives the film an atmosphere of one in which the director has no interest. It’s sad but true. We leave the cinema knowing close to nothing new about Turner’s life, let alone come anywhere close to understanding his inner life. Timothy Spall does his best, giving Turner a consistent set of nuances, habits, and feelings that Leigh never truly explores. Leigh keeps his distance, to the point where we feel we’re watching one of those films they show with museum exhibits. By watching the movie hopscotch across the years in a haphazard manner, we wonder what Leigh thought was interesting about this man. Whatever it was, he certainly didn’t show it.
As the vignettes became sparser, I couldn’t help but become increasingly infuriated with the film, as it blew the most minute actions into a scene of maybe twenty minutes. I understand that this is a slow movie, and I love slow movies, like Local Hero, that can keep us interested without unnecessary acceleration of the plot. Compared to the funny, intelligent, heartfelt, nimble masterpiece by Bill Forsyth, Mr Turner as a film begins to replicate its title character: bloated, wheezing and begging for a reason to go on.
What a pity. The cinematography by Dick Pope was quite good, and there’s definitely a Best Costume award up for grabs. After that, you’ll be spending two and a half hours watching Timothy Spall crying intermittently in different settings. You might as well stay at home, save yourself the money, and read Turner’s Wikipedia page.