'Mr. Turner': The protagonist is only a caricature

Actor Timothy Spall plays the part of the artist as a cranky burbler, though director Mike Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope succeed marvelously with the look of the film.

Courtesy of TIFF
'Mr. Turner' stars Timothy Spall.

The great British painter J.M.W. Turner was by most biographical accounts a rather colorless man, but his canvases are as fully alive as any artist’s who ever lived. Mike Leigh, the writer-director of “Mr. Turner,” has set himself a double task: He wants to give us a Turner who can take his place in the great gallery of British eccentrics, and he seeks to duplicate the heightened lyricism of Turner’s paintings. 

He and his cinematographer, Dick Pope, succeed marvelously with the look of the film. I have rarely seen a movie that so closely resembled the vision of a great artist without degenerating into a series of stills. The dynamism of Turner’s landscapes and seascapes are captured in a way that Turner himself might have applauded. (And the film was shot in digital, no less).

As for the dramatization of Turner’s life, it’s a mixed achievement. Although he is known for modern scenarios, Leigh, as he already demonstrated in the great Gilbert and Sullivan movie “Topsy-Turvy,” is great at period re-creation. The film encompasses the last 25 years of Turner’s life (he died in 1851), and there is never a time when I didn’t feel immersed in that world. But, as Turner, Timothy Spall, whose performance won the top acting prize at Cannes, plays the part as a cranky burbler who grunts his way through life. I suppose he’s Dickensian, except Dickens did this sort of thing with a far richer palette (so to speak). 

I never found a way into the depths of this man – he’s a caricature. His paintings seem to emanate from a different species entirely. I realize this was likely Leigh’s point: The source of his genius is unfathomable. But he overdoes the point. If there is not more to Turner than this movie, it’s only because Leigh didn’t go looking for it.

Still, there are marvelous moments strewn throughout the film, like the scene in London’s Royal Academy when Turner goads his rival, John Constable; or the seaside Margate scenes with his landlady, Sophia Booth (a wonderful Marion Bailey), who becomes his doting and somewhat uncomprehending companion. It’s a painfully uneven movie, but its best moments are ravishingly good. Grade: B (Rated R for some sexual content.)

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