A look at the last twenty-five years of the great British painter J.M.W. Turner.
Check off another Mike Leigh film from my to-watch list; I feel as if I’ve been sailing through Leigh’s filmography lately, but there’s good reason for that. I have yet to be wholly disappointed by a Leigh film, and while this is probably my least favorite of his films that I’ve seen thus far, that, by no means, makes this a bad film, it simply didn’t appeal to me as much as some of his others.
“He’s ruined a perfectly good painting.”
As with all Leigh films, the things that stand out the most are the characters and the writing. In this movie, the characters are complex and impossible to predict, even if they aren’t incredibly likeable, and the writing gives amazing insight into the characters and also the culture in which these characters reside. While Leigh continues to astound me with his astute observations and appreciation of culture and art, this film wasn’t as enjoyable as his other historical biopic, “Topsy-Turvy” (the first Leigh film I saw, and the one that started this whole obsession with him). “Topsy-Turvy” portrayed Gilbert and Sullivan with all their eccentricities and barbed character quirks- and yet those characters were still likable and frequently hilarious. “Mr. Turner” shows the painter as an equally complex man, but one that is less likeable; he’s manipulative and needlessly secretive, oftentimes irritable and grumpy, hoighty toighty and sometimes full of himself- but despite all that, we as the viewer can still appreciate his genius. While Turner is a less likeable character than some of the other characters Leigh has explored over the years, he is undeniably interesting, and Timothy Spall (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) does an amazing job portraying him. It’s rare that there is a biopic that makes me feel so tepid about it’s subject but still makes me appreciate that which he did; as a person, I don’t really care about Turner, but I can still appreciate his artwork.
One thing that I really did love about this movie was how it worked in the culture of what British painters were like during the 1800s. There was a certain amount of competition that went into painting, particularly when it came to those paintings that would be displayed in the palace. Turner’s relationship with the other painters depended on the prince’s current tastes, and who, in turn, was displayed in the main gallery and in the overflow. There are a few scenes that depict painters absolutely livid that their paintings have been moved from one room to another. There are other scenes where painters talk about different painting techniques and approaches, and even more where painters just gush over various works of art. Leigh is pulling back the curtain for us, showing us what goes into the art and how the painters thought about themselves and their peers.
The cinematography was absolutely remarkable in this movie. A lot of the film looks like it uses primarily natural light- it reminded me greatly of “Barry Lyndon” in parts. The film also loves to make use of sunsets, fields, and seascapes, all landscapes that Turner frequently painted. The way that Leigh turns his camera oftentimes evokes the nature of Turner’s greatest paintings; the film is an absolute marvel to behold.
While I appreciated the complexities of Turner’s character, and I could scarcely turn my eyes from the absolutely beautiful cinematography, I still couldn’t help feel that the film itself was a touch lengthy (it is two and a half hours), and some of the sense did tend to drag a bit. As far as technical aspects go, this film is brilliantly refined, but it doesn’t have nearly as much heart as some of Leigh’s other films.
This is a good movie, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it great. It boasts many of the same things that keep bringing me back to Leigh: interesting characters, a well written script, and amazing attention to detail, but I felt as if the story itself could’ve been trimmed by a half hour, and I couldn’t help but feel like it was missing the heart that made me obsess over Leigh’s other movies. If you’ve an interest in classical paintings or Victorian era Britain, you’ll probably enjoy this movie (I’m certainly glad I watched it, even if it wasn’t my favorite Leigh movie)- but if you’re looking for somewhere to start with Leigh, I wouldn’t suggest starting here. Start with Secrets & Lies, Naked, Topsy-Turvy, or “Life is Sweet”.
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