Mr. Turner: Genuine, immersive, mesmerizing


Fair warning: If you get restless during movies that are less about story and more about immersion into other lives and/or places — films like Boyhood or The Tree of Life — then Mr. Turner is most likely not for you.

That said, wait until you get a load of this guy and his world. British filmmaker Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, Topsy-Turvy) and actor Timothy Spall (Harry Potter, Secrets and Lies) offer their take on painter Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), known as “the painter of light.” His last words are reported to have been, “the sun is God.” Sounds noble, doesn't it? But not so fast; the majority of Mr. Turner's vocalizations were grunts, and quite a wide variety of them.

Remember the creatures in Spike Jonze's adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are? Mr. Turner would have fit right in with them. He is a hulking man who sounds like a beast. He looks preoccupied, annoyed. He has business to take care of, and no patience for anything that gets in his way. He is a fascinating creature; a rude, crude beast that creates beauty. On canvas.

The movie focuses less on his works and more on the elements behind the paintings. Leigh and his collaborators do a fine job creating the world Turner lives in. The man is fascinating (Timothy Spall has never been better), but those around him are just as vividly presented. Don't expect introductions, though. Leigh simply puts them in Turner's orbit and leaves it to you to work out who's who.

Luckily, I have a synopsis, so I can share some basic information with you. The film covers roughly the last 25 years of the painter's life, starting somewhere in the 1820s. Turner, back in England after a trip to Belgium, is working on new material. He lives with his father (Paul Jesson) and his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson). She is dutiful and appears to be generally depressed and utterly devoted. Turner fucks her from time to time, but there is no romance between them. He treats her like a utility.

His former mistress (Ruth Sheen) turns up to fight with him. He has two grown kids and a grandchild. He acknowledges none of them. Not just legally — he barely acknowledges them when they're in his presence.

Turner travels incognito to the coastal town of Margate, where he rents a seaside apartment. His landlady is Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). She will gradually become more than that. As Turner edges from his celebrated landscapes to pre-impressionist works, his status in the London-based art world changes. After years of taking his standing for granted, Turner finds himself the object of mockery. He still has supporters, of course, including young critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire).

And the plot? The movie doesn't really work that way. Mike Leigh follows his usual pattern of starting with facts and doing improvisational workshops until he achieves a stunningly realistic, lived-in look and feel. The scenes play like genuine moments observed. I was mesmerized by Mr. Turner, the man and the movie. Though the running time is 150 minutes, I would happily have stayed for another hour.

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Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.