Exterior Bore, Interior Genius

Mr. Turner

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            Mr. Turner is an odd movie shot through with strengths and weaknesses that can leave audiences puzzled. First, the plot. Englandís great painter J.M.W. Turner, as played by Timothy Spall, has known success all his life. Recognized as a major forerunner to the Impressionists, his work became part of a shifting tide in the art world.
            When we first meet him in advanced middle age, he lives and paints in his simple home attended in all his needs by his housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson). His father William (Paul Jesson) prepares his sonís canvasses and guides visitors through the studio. We learn quite quickly that Mr. Turner is a crabby old guy who goes through his days with few words and a great deal of grunting while alienating most of his contemporaries
            The strengths. Mr. Turner sneaks away periodically to Margate, travelling by boat to a room he rents under an alias where he finds much of the inspiration for his paintings of sea and sky. In the single greatest strength of the film, director Mike Leigh has captured the natural forces of constantly changing weather that clearly were the inspiration for Turnerís work. We see him in all kinds of weather, always on or near water in wind and rain, under sun and clouds. He is riveted, nothing less, by the effect of water on light and color. Director Leighís camera then closes in on the paintings that erupted from Turnerís nearly obsessive fascination with these prismatic effects.
            The room he has rented anonymously is in the house of Sophia Booth (a fine Marion Bailey) who becomes his mistress. Only in this relationship do we see a lighter side of the grouchy man who plods through his days in a gloom that contrasts so starkly with the passion of his research on weather for his painting.
            And now, the weakness. Director Leighís film runs two and a half long hours while he presents Turnerís life in short scenes that never finish what they began. We wait in vain for the lessons of these scenes only to realize there will be no forward motion at all. This is far too long a time to spend with a mostly silent, grumpy man. Is this the man whose paintings show an artist with an internal filter that sorts the extremes of nature so sublimely?
            In a lesson especially moving in our era, we learn that Mr. Turner turned down a fortune for all his paintings so the nation could see them without cost. In a movie that is filmed beautifully, the question looms: how can this uninteresting public man have had the fire that produced the 19,000 oils, watercolors, and drawings that hang today in the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery in London. To enjoy this movie, just accept that the public man was a bore and pay attention to what you can learn about his internal life as he experienced water and light. Think prism.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Mr. Turner
Word count : 500
Studio : Sony Pictures Classics
Running time : 2:30
Rating : R

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