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Paints a Pretty Picture

Sony Pictures Classics
 150 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson
Mr. Turner

Great art is rare; great art movies are even rarer. J.M.W. Turner is widely considered the best British artist of all time, but most people don’t even recognize the name. Writer/director Mike Leigh, whose best movies have been intimate character pieces, adapts the same technique in Mr. Turner, exploring the artist’s life in a serious of often extended vignettes. The results are a film that drags at times but admirably portrays a fascinating, often contradictory personality.


Timothy Spall (who resembles the artist) plays Turner over the last 25 years of the painter’s life. As the film begins, he is already quite celebrated, often visiting wealthy arts patrons to enjoy their hospitality and promote himself. He lives quietly at home with his retired barber father (Paul Jesson) and a housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) who also tends to his rather crude occasional sexual needs. Turner also occasionally goes on research trips to observe local scenery he later uses as settings for his work.


During the course of the movie, Turner spends considerable time in the seaside town of Margate, where he rents a room overlooking the harbor from a local couple, the Booths. After the husband dies, Turner finds himself increasingly attracted to the widow Booth (Marion Bailey) and eventually they become lovers, Turner holding himself out as her husband when staying with her. Although he was quite attentive to Mrs. Booth (and adored his own father), he was far less caring for his two adult children from an earlier relationship, refusing to acknowledge them in public.


This latter contradiction is just one of many that make up Turner’s character that gradually reveal themselves throughout the course of the movie. For the most part, the film avoids the usual biopic storyline of focusing on the “big events” in the subject’s life. Instead, for the most part, we get a sampling of typical events in Turner’s life. However, scenes are allowed to play out at length, creating a much more natural feel.


Director Leigh has a reputation for working with his actors and getting them to improvise, and many scenes in the movie have a non-scripted feel to them. However, the actors are conversing in the dialect of the early 1800s, which can’t have come naturally to any of them, but they manage to pull off the far more mannered speech of that era. Especially interesting are a series of encounters between Turner and a considerably less talented painter, Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), who accepts money from Turner but rants at him and the established art world all the same. The fact that Turner puts up with him speaks to the at-times generous nature of the artist.


Turner’s treatment towards those nearest him is just one of the many contradictory aspects of the artist’s nature that Leigh explores. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Turner was fascinated by engineering and science, although afraid of what photography might do to future artists. He often spoke in grunts but could be amazingly eloquent on occasions. He also spent considerable time with the wealthy patrons who supported him, while maintaining a degree of independence. And, most important, he refused an offer to sell his entire collection to one wealthy businessman, instead bequeathing it to museums for viewing by the public.


Turner himself was generally held in high regard by his fellow artists, and it’s easy to see why, as he was always exceedingly gracious towards them. However, his art went in and out of fashion with the general public, which disturbed him greatly. One extremely revealing scene in the movie shows Turner watching a silly comic play in which he is mocked and portrayed as a pompous buffoon. The audience, unaware of his presence, laughs hysterically, while Spall registers the hurt.


Mr. Turner is a career role for Spall, and the complete lack of recognition he received at yearend awards time is baffling. Despite Spall’s slight (and a shutout for Leigh as well), the movie fared well at the Oscars, garnering four nominations. The most noteworthy nomination was for Dick Pope’s stunning cinematography. In scene after scene, usually the outdoor sequences, he creates masterful, perfectly framed tableaux, capturing scenes much the same as one imagines Turner himself would have captured them. 


The downside of the improvisational nature of Leigh’s work and his tendency to let scenes play out is that the movie does drag in spots. Viewers are “treated” to two separate drawn out death scenes, both Turner’s and his father’s, and few probably need reminding that the death of an elderly person at a time before modern medicine was often a drawn out and painful affair. Other scenes seem repetitive as well, as if Leigh couldn’t let go of a good theme that worked in an earlier scene.


Although the movie would have been better at 120 minutes than at 150, it is far from the dry boring documentary most people might imagine the life of a period painter to be. Turner was a man of great appetites and emotions, and Mr. Turner captures those quite well. In addition, the movie gives the audience a better feel into the creative process than do most films about art. 

Read other reviews of Mr. Turner:


Mr. Turner (2014) on IMDb