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With: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage
Written by: Mike Leigh
Directed by: Mike Leigh
MPAA Rating: R for some sexual content
Running Time: 150
Date: 12/19/2014
IMDB

Mr. Turner (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Staring at the Sea

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Timothy Spall grunts, growls, and grimaces his way through Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, a satisfying portrait of a great artist. On Leigh's orders, Spall apparently took two years to learn how to paint and to paint like Turner so that all onscreen painting actually happens as you see it. None of this having an actor dabbing at a work that was clearly pre-prepared by other hands. Yet Spall's work is not so much a great performance in the traditional sense as it is an impression.

Mr. Turner doesn't precisely tell a story so much as it does show a series of things that may have happened to J.M.W. Turner in the last several years of his life. He travels. He meets with art enthusiasts and potential buyers and suffers their comments quietly. He treats his adoring housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) rather badly, ranging from quasi-raping her to flatly ignoring her. There are arguments with other artists, and he shocks a group of them by adding a spot of red to an already completed painting.

Eventually he more or less falls for a widow lady, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey) who runs a hotel and begins to spend more and more of his time there, while trying to keep his identity a secret from the locals. In one great scene, he decides to have his photograph taken (a rather new invention), and he peppers the photographer with smart questions about lenses while the photo is prepared. Later, he brings Sophia to have their photo taken together, which is perhaps the most romantic that Turner is prepared to ever be.

Leigh's film is long, meditative and immersive. He dutifully re-creates this time, roughly 1826 to 1851, in exquisite detail, ranging from things lovely to things grotesquely primitive. Turner's slow journey from sickness to death during his final days are charted cruelly and without flinching. Rather than pure nostalgia, this movie feels like time traveling.

Perhaps best of all, we get to gaze upon so many Turner paintings and get an idea of what he was about, what was behind them, and what he put into them. When someone asks if he ever grows tired of painting seascapes and ships, he simply responds that, no, he hasn't. His paintings are masterpieces of texture, with subtle mixtures of color representing water and sky, somehow halfway between realism and impressionism. (I was very excited to see this and Frederick Wiseman's documentary National Gallery in the same week, wherein a real-life Turner painting is admired.)

At a glance, Mr. Turner looks and feels like a Mike Leigh movie, but it's slower and less cluttered than things like the similar period piece Topsy-Turvy (1999), and certainly with less forward drive than recent things like Vera Drake (2004) or Happy-Go-Lucky (2008). I met Leigh once, and he struck me as rather persnickety and grouchy, not unlike this Mr. Turner. Yet I wonder if he's slowing down, and prefers, in his 70s, to take more time to sink into a movie. Or perhaps he's approaching filmmaking like painting, and simply taking more time to stand back and admire. Either way, Mr. Turner is another of his fine achievements.

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