By Ethan Sapienza
The later and arguably more famous paintings of JMW Turner were those that depicted beauty in a hazy yet dominating fashion. Though exact images, locations and people are difficult to discern in the pictures, it is clear that Turner wished to depict the raw beauty of nature and its awe-inspiring power. Writer-director Mike Leigh’s biopic of England’s most famous artist, “Mr. Turner,” instead depicts nature with astounding clarity, yet undermined by brutish and crude human beings.
The main problem with “Turner” is that it only wishes to serve itself. While film is certainly an art form, one that can explore profound ideas, emotions, etc., it is also a medium dedicated to entertainment. Leigh does not wish to entertain the viewer, at least not any typical human being. Structured more like a very lengthy and slowly progressing lecture, the film trudges through the later portion of Turner’s life, attempting to show how, though gifted, the painter was a short tempered and gross man.
I can respect that Leigh desires to construct an accurate portrait of an often-celebrated figure, but there’s a difference between doing so in a fantastically boring manner and then one that is slightly more digestible and engaging. Characters fade in and out, without any introduction or suggestion as to their importance. Leigh is entirely indulgent as he just makes the movie he would want and not one that would appeal to a wide audience, if even an audience at all. Even at the close of the credits a disclaimer is left informing that events and characters and such were fictionalized for dramatic effect, though quite simply no drama is really ever had.
In all fairness, the film is rather well shot and filled with heartfelt performances. Timothy Spall is phenomenal as Turner. His performance is intimidating, as he makes his presence felt in every scene through a brooding demeanor and lines delivered with great emotion, whether it be anger or anguish. Paul Jesson is wonderful as Turner’s closest confidant, who happens to be his father, William, acting as a beautiful foil consisting of great manners and care for others. Dorothy Atkinson is Hannah Danby, Turner’s loyal, sexually and emotionally abused servant, who is horrifyingly sympathetic in her skittish and reserved way.
Unfortunately, in their commitment and accuracy, the characters’ thick, archaic accents make it difficult to discern what they are saying. This, along with the film’s pace which does nothing to inform but rather to progress for itself often make it remarkably difficult to follow what is occurring in Turner’s life at the moment.
As sad as I may be to write this, “Mr. Turner” is not a film worth seeing. Though upon occasion it has startling picturesque imagery and worthwhile acting, it is more likely to induce sleep than it is joy.
Ethan Sapienza is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.