A portrait of an artist

‘Mr. Turner’ is a dull glimpse into the life of a fascinating painter.

December 11, 2014 13:31
3 minute read.
‘Mr. Turner’ movie

‘Mr. Turner’ movie. (photo credit: PR)

Movies about painters usually show them staring intently at a landscape or person, especially one that is the subject of a famous painting, then working away. These glimpses of them making art are interspersed with many more scenes of them behaving horribly toward those they love. The message is clear: Artists aren’t nice people, but they do great work.

Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s biopic of the incomparable British artist J.M.W. Turner, known for his evocative landscapes and seascapes, the originality and beauty of which helped inspire the Impressionist movement in 19th century art, follows this creative-artist template to a T.

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The film, which spans approximately the last 30 years of Turner’s life, stars Timothy Spall as Turner, a gruff man lacking in social graces and utterly self-centered, who overcame poverty to become one of the most important painters of his century.

Leigh’s approach is to jump right into the story, so there are no title cards setting the context. The more you know about art history, the more you will understand what is going on. Turner, already middle aged and successful, lives in a dingy house with his ailing father (Paul Jesson) and a devoted housekeeper, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), who is his mistress when the mood takes him and whom he completely ignores most of the time. He has two grown daughters from a previous mistress whom he rarely sees. Traveling to the seaside to paint, he befriends a widow, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), a warmhearted woman to whom he does not reveal his true identity at first.

Eventually, they set up house together.

During his lifetime, he was respected and successful; but the unimaginative curators at the Royal Academy of Arts recognized his talent only up to a point, giving their prime gallery spots to more conventional painters such as John Constable, and mostly relegating Turner to outer rooms.

Turner, unlike Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), a painter who struggled to win the Academy’s approval, did not worry much about his work’s reception. When the young and prescient critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) singles out Turner’s work for its innovative brilliance, Turner doesn’t much care, and Ruskin is presented here as callow and spoiled. But when Turner is mocked for his naturalistic use of light and color in such masterpieces as Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway and many other late works, he feels the sting of the criticism. However, he does not change his style a bit in response.

This description may make it seem as if the movie concentrates on his art, but it is much more focused on his personal life, where he is generally a less than sympathetic figure. I was interested to know – as the much-mocked character John Ruskin is in the movie – what inspired Turner to do away with the conventional lines for paintings and to use more intense color to portray light. This is not a question that particularly concerns the director.

Leigh focuses almost entirely on the familiar dichotomy of how such a genius in art can be such a selfabsorbed jerk in his day-to-day life.

The truth is, many people are selfabsorbed jerks, and the tiniest minority are visionary artists. If only Leigh had looked harder into what inspired Turner’s work, the movie might have been far more memorable. But watching Turner ignore his housekeeper or speak gruffly to patrons grows monotonous very quickly.

Spall won the Best Actor Award at Cannes, and he’s one of Britain’s most reliable character actors. He played Wormtail in the Harry Potter movies, Winston Churchill in The King’s Speech and has had dozens of other roles. It’s nice to see this talented actor in a starring role. But in spite of the accolades he deservedly received, it’s a long, dull slog of a movie, downplaying the one and only aspect of Turner’s life that made it exceptional.

Leigh, who usually makes low-key stories of working-class life, also made the 1999 Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy. But that movie was enlivened by the interplay between the two heroes and the staging of their operettas. In spite of the brilliant acting and meticulous research, Mr. Turner will bore all but the most ardent art historians.

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