Saturday, October 11, 2014

MR TURNER - LFF14 - Day Four

If ever there was a movie that deserved to be seen on the big screen it's Mike Leigh's MR TURNER. It's a character study of the celebrated Victorian painter in the latter years of his life and one of the chief triumphs of the film is to depict the English landscape and seascape with all the luminosity and beauty that Turner himself achieved. It comes as no surprise, then, to see Dick Pope win the cinematography prize at Cannes this year. 

The other of the film's award winners was Timothy Spall, who plays the painter through all of his moods and guises.  We see him as the doting son of his ailing daddy - joyous as the "old cove" comes to greet him after a trip to Holland.  We see him as the suave house guest of his aristocratic patron.  We see him utterly in command at the height of his career in a tour de force scene where he whistles through the Royal Academy as the Big Cheese, bestowing praise and advice and a mischievous thumb to the nose of Mr Constable.  We also see Turner as the intellectual - the man who won't be goaded by that pretentious pipsqueak Mr Ruskin into criticising the great painters of the past.  

But the great thing about this film is that it allows us to see the other side of the Turner  - the casual cruelty with which he denies the existence of his illegitimate daughters or uses his maid with almost bestial grunts - or makes a literal grab for his Margate landlady Mrs Booth.  His treatment of Constable is petty and mean, and while Haydon is a deeply irritating and proud man, he's also an artist that Turner might have done more to help.

Still, this is ultimately a sympathetic portrait. We feel the genuine warmth of his relationship with his daddy and the genuine talent of capturing the beauty not just of nature but of modernity.  But where the movie really gets us is in it final hour when Turner's star begins to fade.  His paintings become more ambitious and technically audacious as he strives to capture light at the expense of form.   We see the artist become a kind of joke in his own time - mocked by everyone from Queen Victoria to the working classes in a music hall.  The question is how far Turner was engaged in a deliberate throwing off of firm or how far he was affected by physical decline - notably the deterioration of eyesight from his diabetes.  (There's an excellent article on this subject here.) Suffice to say that the film is far more interested in the emotional impact of this than making a definitive argument either way.

As ever, Mike Leigh has approached his topic with insight, humanity and wonderful good humour. This is no stuffy period piece.  The language is a delight, and it's worth paying the price of admission just to see the contempt with which Turner's maid starts poking at bluebottles on a muslin cloth. Is she the most memorable and tragicomic put-upon servant since Baldrick? Ultimately, though, this movie is all about Timothy Spall. It's yet another superb, moving and memorable performance in a long career full of great performances, many of which are in Mike Leigh films.

MR TURNER has a running time of 149 minutes. The movie played Cannes where Timothy Spall won the Best Actor prize and cinematographer Dick Pope won the Vulcain Prize for the Technical Artist. It also played Telluride, Toronto and London 2014. It will be released in the UK and Ireland on October 31st, in Germany on November 6th, in France on December 3rd, in Belgium on December 10th, in the Netherlands on December 11th, in the USA on December 16th, in Sweden on December 25th, in Norway on January 9th, in Australia on January 22nd, and in Denmark on April 16th.

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