As he slumps further into his seat, a numbing chill besets a visibly drained man. His eyelids uncontrollably waver between open and closed like a ship’s bow undulating in the sea. The abject look emblazoned across his face tells a tale of defeat, hinting at the effects of a grave and strenuous ordeal. He’s had enough; surely this is the end.
Not quite. The man I’m describing isn’t some character on the big screen, but rather your humble reviewer in the final throngs of Mike Leigh’s unmercifully laborious and overdrawn film, Mr. Turner. It’s not often that I’ll yearn for a film’s end so desperately, but Mr. Turner sucked the life and enjoyment out of cinema during its 150 minute runtime.
With revered porcelain king of kitchen sink Mike Leigh writing and directing and long-time collaborator Dick Pope working as cinematographer, Mr. Turner looked like the intriguing matrimony of a beautiful but gritty period piece and thorough biopic. On the surface, a Victorian landscape painter might not sound like a particularly enthralling profession on which to center a two and half hour-long film. But this isn’t just any artist – it’s J.M.W. Turner.
Turner is a man whose reputation was of an unorthodox anarchist on the art scene. Paired with an equally complicated personal life, his story should have been more than enough to build an engrossing character-driven film. Sadly, by Mr Turner’s credits, the idea of Victorian landscape painting seemed absolutely riveting in contrast to Leigh’s dull take on Turner’s life.
The film follows Turner for the last 25 years of his life, the peak of his creative powers and nadir of his personal life. Yet under Leigh’s guidance, this era comes across as insufferably boring on-screen. He displays major life events in an alienating, fragmented narrative that meanders without any coherence.
One minute we’re watching Turner sketching the sea, the next he’s at some unknown art function filled with intellectuals and then he’s undergoing some bizarre ritual at a brothel. There’s little to no context to these brief scenes. And without context, these moments don’t seem to follow from one another at all.
Seeing these fragmented episodes in Turner’s life is like watching a master artist create every inch of his painting without ever seeing the grand reveal. There is no complete picture here: only small brush strokes.
One of Turner’s most famous acts was to have himself strapped to a ship’s mast in a snowstorm so he could sketch the treacherous conditions up close. This eccentric tale arrives in Mr. Turner with no prior warning, no present explanation and no future callbacks. It’s almost an isolated outtake from the cutting room floor. The problem is that the whole film plods along with this jarring syntax.
By virtue of Timothy Spall’s casting you can hazard a good guess as to his take on William Turner as a character – grumpy, bumbling, belligerent and grunty, albeit with an oddly endearing charm. Turner is far from likeable; his manner is curt and standoffish. He usually communicates in snorts and grunts, not dissimilar to the swine he pigs out on.
I saw an interview with Spall where he described his character as a “contradictory implosive personality.” While it’s a fair description of a complex character, it also summarises the traits unbefitting a leading man. On paper, Turner is a confused mess with plenty of intriguing qualities and caveats, none more so than the awful but oddly sympathetic denial of his children’s existence. But his own introverted demeanour, as captured by Spall, left me starved of the empathy needed to lose myself in the character.
There are scenes of subtle beauty and poignant emotion scattered throughout Mr. Turner. These sequences bring much-needed impetus to the story. In one excruciating scene where Turner is berated by the mother of his children for his lack of compassion. The understated power of the moment stems from Spall’s body language. His back is to the camera and all we can see is his hands ringing in nervous embarrassment, perfectly communicating his thoughts without words.
These nuances offer clues about his feelings. This interaction is delicately underplayed by Spall and the result is gut-wrenching. Sadly, these powerful moments are sporadic oases along an otherwise dreary voyage.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of Mr. Turner is Dick Pope’s uninspiring cinematography. The film in framed in glorious widescreen that perfectly suits the striking landscapes that inspired Turner’s renowned paintings. And in one shot, when the sun’s incandescence illuminates both sea and ships with a fiery glow, Pope clearly invokes “The Fighting Temeraire.”
But barring that moment, Pope confines most of the film to the cramped interiors of Victorian England. These indoor shots are often obscured by doorways that give a sense of the kitchen sink-esque intimacy evocative of Leigh’s other work. While this approach has yielded superb results for his gritty dramas, it in no way complements a story about one of Britain’s greatest landscape painters.
Pope may have filled these interior shots with intense streams of light evocative of Johannes Vermeer’s “Milkmaid” painting, but Turner thrives off of the great outdoors. This idea is never successfully conveyed. It seems Leigh is uncomfortable venturing outside the comfort of claustrophobia.
Most notably, there’s a distasteful snobbery to Mr. Turner. Most of the film’s humour is found in dry, sharp retorts and pompous trifles of the upper class. It’s the type of humour that tickles middle-aged arty types but to the rest of us comes across as tedious. The idiosyncrasies of the Victorian upper classes, the authentic dialogue delivered in a purposely garbled form and contextually void plot gives the impression that Leigh is trying to outwit his audience.
Leigh said in a recent interview he never “condescends or patronises” his viewers, but also added he believed his “audiences are at least as intelligent as I am.” Perhaps in this desire to give an authentic, meticulous and unsanitized picture of Turner, Leigh has assumed too much of his audience. Either way, Mr. Turner is an alienating experience that whiffs of esotericism.
Leigh’s film is one of the biggest cinematic chores of recent times, an uninspired and arduous for its entire drawn-out existence. It feels like the writer/director has gone out his way to make the film as inexplicable as possible; his intellectual indulgences hinder the film before it even gets going. I’m not advocating spoon-feeding audiences, but with no prior knowledge of the titular artist, you’ll get little reward for enduring Mr. Turner.
Movie Verdict: Fail