Every year, the Cannes Film Festival takes place in France and any film looking to impress audiences and seek serious awards contention is debuted there. This year, Mr. Turner premiered to a pretty enthusiastic audience and its lead actor won the award for Best Actor. The film’s other award was a special jury prize for cinematography. There’s been a lot of discussion surrounding this film and it’s awards possibilities and now that I’ve seen it, it appears that I’m one of the few scratching my head.
Known as one of the greatest landscape painters in history, J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) created many masterpieces which prefaced impressionism work. Somewhat of an odd man, Turner was very close with his father, William (Paul Jesson) and considered him a large part of his life. When he wasn’t painting, Turner also got rather friendly with his housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) and used her for sex whenever he was feeling up to it.
Given his impressive body of work, Turner caught the attention of many of the aristocratic men at the time and was commissioned to paint for some prestigious people. Everything was going well for him, until his father died and left Turner with an empty place in his life. After that, Turner began travelling and painting wherever he found inspiration. To accomplish his works, he sometimes goes to great lengths to paint something and his work receives cheers and jeers from the public and royalty.
Mr. Turner is a beautifully made, well-acted, ultimately uninteresting portrayal of J.M.W. Turner’s life. This film feels less like a biopic, which I do give it credit for, as it chronicles major events in Turner’s life without making them feel like highlights. Immense detail and work went into crafting this film and it’s quite a sight to behold. The lead performance is one that’s garnered a lot of rightful attention, but the film’s length and inability to sustain and audience’s interest is where it tragically missteps.
Timothy Spall, most notable to general audiences as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter series, does an outstanding job as the titular character, committing completely to a gruff voice and an unpleasant personality. Much like Eddy Redmayne‘s performance in The Theory of Everything, Spall relies heavily on his facial contortions to express his sentiments and it’s extremely effective. His meticulous movements and brushstrokes all serve a purpose, but his behavior towards others makes him a bit of an outcast. His character is complex, but Spall does a great job of carrying the film with him and sustaining some interest due to his towering presence.
Dick Pope deserves an equal amount of praise for his truly breathtaking cinematography that will take the breath right out of you. Every scene is soaked in rich colors and beautiful images that stain your eyes, until the next frame begins and the process starts all over again. Pope’s eye for natural colors is astounding, as he manages to enhance and detail certain things we wouldn’t notice, had someone else shot the film. Even indoors, the film looks superb and everything is perfectly lit and detailed. This is what the stuff of awards looks like.
Writer/Director Mike Leigh also deserves credit for this film as a whole because it’s not something you’d usually come across. Leigh’s lens follows Spall through many periods of his life, but it does so in a present manner. Whenever the moment is, that’s what the focus is on. In terms of a general story, Mr. Turner doesn’t necessarily have one. We are granted glimpses of his life and work, but it’s just that; glimpses. His character’s background is, for the most part, unknown and there’s not too much depth to him in the present. The film just sort of wanders around, following Spall wherever he travels.
Attention retainment is a huge factor in any film, especially those which are period pieces. Art biopics come in all shapes and sizes, some interesting and some not. There are some interesting things in this film but, by and large, I was unmoved by what I saw and the films two-and-a-half-hour runtime felt like an eternity. The film felt distant, as it was hard to fully enjoy any of the characters and Spall’s character isn’t the most likable man. With a heavy focus on visuals, sound was left out to dry, as much of the dialogue is hushed and the score underwhelms. More than that, the score nearly put me to sleep with its dull sounds.
Mr. Turner is easily one of, if not, the best looking films of the year and it helps that it also has one of the year’s better performances too. There really are no words to do Dick Pope’s cinematography justice, but that and Spall’s performance are what keep this film alive. Director Mike Leigh clearly had a great vision for this film, but he unfortunately can’t find a way to tell this story without losing the audience’s interest. There’s not nearly enough within the two-and-a-half-hours to make this film rave-worthy, but it may appeal to the more artsy film-goers.
Mr. Turner Trailer