“Mr. Turner” Offers Beautiful Compositions in a Formless Landscape

Mr Turner

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014)

I wish that I could agree with the overwhelming majority of film critics who adored the new film from director Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy), entitled Mr. Turner (which is, appropriately enough, about the great 19th-century English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner), but while I loved the cinematography from longtime Leigh collaborator Dick Pope (also Topsy-Turvy) – Oscar-nominated (his second time) for this film – I found the movie, itself, a somewhat long and dreary affair. I have seen enough of Leigh’s films to believe completely in the sincerity and intentionality of his efforts, so I have no doubt that everything on the screen is meant to be there. I also admire his attempt to make a film that, as it progresses, devolves into the same formlessness as its subject’s later paintings. And yet in spite of my own great efforts to give a damn, I simply began, as time wore on (and on) to lose interest in all but the gorgeously composed images. Some works of arts are labors of love; this felt, quite simply, like labor, alone.

Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew/Wormtail in the Harry Potter films) certainly gives it his all, grunting and snorting (and spitting) his way through what can certainly be called a performance (of sorts), and which, given what we know about the historical Turner, seems designed to remind us, time and again, of the great artist’s working-class roots (that and his Cockney accent), yet what we come away with is merely a sense of the effort it took to sustain that role for the length of the production. I like the idea that beautiful things can come from unrefined people (and why not?), but apart from this (hardly new) presentation of the dichotomy of the vessel and its precious cargo (Amadeus, anyone?), but apart from this unoriginal observation about the physical awkwardness of the man, what does the film tell us about art, its creation, or even just this one particular artist?

Well, we learn this: Turner was a bastard. He loved his father, but mistreated most of the women in his life (for no discernible reason, according to Leigh). He was inarticulate, and not very sociable. He was successful enough to live well, but then, as his paintings grew more abstract and he fell out of favor, he became disdainful of selling out, and turned into even more of a recluse. He was original and ahead of his time. At the end, he found a good woman who took care of him, treated her reasonably well (better than her forebears), and then died. Events happened, maybe in that order, and some impressive art was left for us to admire in the centuries to follow. Does that seem a bit ajumble? Welcome to Mr. Turner!

One other note, which relates to a general criticism I have of Mike Leigh’s work – hit or miss, for me, though when he hits, he approaches genius – is Leigh’s tendency to write one-dimensional caricatures of characters who are either social climbers, of the upper classes, or just filled with pretension (to his mind). He does this in Life Is Sweet and Naked, among other films, and now Mr. Turner, where his John Ruskin – an incredibly important 19th-century art critic – is portrayed as a foppish wannabe. Why does he insist on doing this? I am glad that his focus is so squarely on the working class – someone’s has to be – but no one, not even a villain, is without layers and depths. He should take a lesson from Mohamedou Ould Slahi, recent author of the first ever memoir penned from within the prison at Guantánamo Bay, who writes of everyone – even his captors – as if they are fully human. Which, like all of us, they are. Leigh’s films would be of consistently greater interest if he understood his own weakness to demonize those whom he despises.

Dick Pope deserves all of the kudos he’s getting, however, and if he wins an Oscar, then it his work, alone, that will bring people back to this movie in years to come (even without an Oscar, you should watch the film – even if you get bored – just to see what he’s done). Shooting digitally, he paints with light, much as Turner did. To enter into Pope’s vision is to understand what cinema can do when the right tools are in the hands of the right people. It’s just too bad that the larger vessel that holds Pope’s cargo is full of holes. If you want to see better films made by Leigh and Pope, check out the following: Secrets and LiesVera Drake, and the aforementioned Topsy-Turvy.

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