There are a few things you need to know about Mr. Turner right off the bat.
1. It’s from the prolific writer/director known as Mike Leigh.
2. It’s a period piece biopic about a painter.
3. Its running time is 150 minutes.
Those three facts should be enough to help pique your interest or to send you scurrying towards something a little bit lighter, or at least shorter — but if you’re a patient film buff who relishes the idea of a low-key yet consistently compelling cinematic biography that’s in no real hurry to get anywhere, there’s a whole lot to admire about Mr. Turner.
It doesn’t take long to notice that this particular film is a labor of love. If you’re expecting a Hollywood-style paint-by-numbers* biopic about the widely-adored British painter J.M.W. Turner, then this film may drive you nuts. If, however, you’re interested in a frank, honest, and generally quite fascinating look at the mid-19th century London “art scene” and one of its most acclaimed practitioners, then it won’t matter that Mr.Turner is a 2.5-hour film. You’ll simply love all of it.
Avoiding the cliches and missteps of the more conventional biopics, Mr. Leigh doesn’t deal with anything like flashbacks, psychological analyses, or even much in the way of subtext. If the goal was to deliver as open and realistic a depiction of a brilliant but difficult man as possible, then Mr. Turner is a success on all counts. The wonderfully versatile Timothy Spall, best known for supporting roles, takes center stage here, and man is this guy amazing. After a few minutes of “oh, I loved this actor in Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland and etc.,” the guy simply vanishes into the role. He’s gruff, gracious, generous, cruel, articulate, confusing, brilliant, and stupid — sometimes all in the same scene.
As Mr. Turner is a biopic by way of a full-bore character study, there’s not much in the way of plot here. We’re introduced to Mr. Turner well after he’s been established as one of England’s more celebrated artists, and then we slowly get to know some of the people who lived in his background: a forgotten wife and two rejected daughters; a maid who is sometimes a lover but doesn’t seem to get much affection in return; a sweet widow who somehow gives a difficult bastard a little peace; and, of course, various other painters, critics, and fans who have no little impact on Turner‘s creativity.
While it’s clear that the director is a fan of Mr. Turner‘s artwork, that doesn’t prevent him from showing the ugly and unpleasant side of the man’s life. The film’s cleverest sequence sees Turner suffering through a stage production’s mockery of his work; it plays like a 19th century version of Saturday Night Live, and it provides a fascinating piece of insight as we watch Turner wriggle and squirm with discomfort.
Backed by flawless production design and an equally impressive supporting cast, Mr. Turner is in every way a “Masterpiece Theater” sort of film, but it’s also a pretty damn excellent movie, period. It’d be worth seeing for Mr. Spall’s performance all by itself, but thankfully there’s a lot more to appreciate here than just one powerful piece of acting. It’s difficult to call a new film “one of Mike Leigh’s best” (he’s made a lot of good movies), but Mr. Turner is precisely that; it’s great to see this filmmaker still firing on all cylinders after all these years.
( *Intentional pun. Sorry.)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 burritos