Mike Leigh takes us on an exploration of the final 25 years of the great painter JMW Turner’s life.
The idea of making a film about a famous painter’s life is an interesting one; much like Blur and Oasis in the 1990s, these artists had professional rivalries, and did not work in utter isolation as we may think. The trouble is, that JMW Turner’s life may have been interesting, but this is not truly shown in mike Leigh’s film.
Timothy Spall huffs and harrumphs his way through his role as the titular character; although the novelty of deciphering Spall’s grunts quickly wears off, this is a strong performance from the actor, as he shows genuine tenderness and cruel mockery, often within the same scene. The rest of the cast is equally as strong, Paul Jesson plays the elder Mr Turner with care and gentleness, Marion Bailey allows silence to pervade the screen as Mrs Booth, and Dorothy Atkinson gives a strong yet almost stoic performance as Turner’s long time housekeeper – and sometime sex partner – Hannah Danby.
Dick Pope’s cinematography is simply beautiful; instead of trying to replicate the wonderful swathes of colour and light shown in Turner’s work, he instead allows the audience to fill in the blanks, and make the connections between what the film shows and what Turner paints. Pope allows darkness and light to balance throughout the film, and makes the coastal scenes bright and beautiful.
Where the film falls down, however, is in the story. There has to have been some fascination with Turner’s life for the film to be made in the first place – perhaps the double life he led, or the fact that he could paint such beauty but be unable to eloquently communicate with people through language, or perhaps the endeavour he undertook that endangered his life; strapping himself to the mast of a ship during a storm – but while all of these are present in the film, none is allowed to take centre stage, leaving the film adrift in 25 years of a character’s life, without a theme or event to tie it all together. Admittedly, there are times when Leigh’s script is surprisingly funny, and shakes off some of the preconceptions the audience has, but this is not enough to make the film anything more than a series of curiosities.
As director, Leigh coaxes strong performances from his actors, and each of them truly inhabits the character they take on. Spall is impressive in his stomping, spitting, grunting role, and manages to show this gruff, abrasive character’s gentler and more caring side. Without a strong story to the script, however, Spall et al can stomp and simper all they like, but the film lacks the structure to support them. However, with a 150 minute run time, there is plenty of time to wonder at the lack of plot.
Mr Turner is a beautifully shot film that is populated with strong performances from great actors. The truly enraging thing, however, is the complete lack of plot, development or story, leaving us with a protagonist who never changes and a film that is funny at times, but ultimately pointless.