Starring: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson
Directed by: Mike Leigh (“Topsy-Turvy”)
Written by: Mike Leigh (“Vera Drake”)
Please don’t paint me as uncultured if I say “Mr. Turner” is a tough nut to crack. Meandering somewhat aimlessly through the last 20 years or so in the life of painter J.M.W Turner–played as a grunting, curiously strange sort of 19th century art-world troll by Timothy Spall—the film looks beautiful and the canvas is overflowing with small details, yet the light watercolors of the production design are diminished by the dense glob of oil paint that is the title character.
“Mr. Turner” concerns the life of the renowned British landscape painter and his various eccentricities. The film follows Turner as he paints, ignores his children, has sexual relations with his housekeeper, aggravates the stuffy Royal Academy of Arts, carries on an affair with a widow in a seaside town, and loses his beloved father. Gruff and off-putting with seemingly few redeeming qualities outside of a gift for handling a brush, Turner seems to be the prototype for every exceptional artist who comes across as a human being you wouldn’t necessarily want to spend time with.
Director and screenwriter Mike Leigh intentionally leaves many aspects of Turner opaque, presenting a central character with unexplored oddities such as his callous dismissal of his children, his incredible love for his father, and the anonymity he strives for when traveling. Cinematographer Dick Pope (or Dick Poop, as he was famously called when his Oscar nomination for the film was announced), fills the frame with images as fine as Turner himself would paint, even if the subject at hand doesn’t quite live up to the attention paid to it. Spall is magnetic if sometimes unintelligible (I had to turn on subtitles on my DVD screener) as Turner, but viewers looking for a clear picture of what made the artist tick may be disappointed that the finer details are lost in the broad strokes.