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Eccentric Story of ‘Mr. Turner’ Still Visually Arresting

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CHICAGO – The thing that can be said for British writer/director Mike Leigh is that it’s never known what story may capture his fancy. The auteur of “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Topsy-Turvy,” “Secrets and Lies” and “Life is Sweet” now tackles the last quarter century of a notable British painter’s life, through his strange maneuverings and unconventionality, in “Mr. Turner.”

The Mister is J.M.W. Turner, an English Romantic landscape artist, whose form elevated the genre into a pre-impressionism age – making Turner a rather controversial figure in his time. The film plays upon that theme, as Timothy Spall portrays the painter in Mike Leigh’s script as a prolific adventurer and eccentric. Since Turner is a landscape painter, the director and cinematographer (Dick Pope) create an expansive cinematic canvas that “sees” Turner’s vision. The story, however, is a mishmash of scenes rather than a cohesive narrative, and depending on the viewer could be interpreted as off putting – but that is also a distinct mark of Leigh and his approach to storytelling.

John Mallard William Turner (Timothy Spall) is in the last quarter of his famed life. In the beginning of this end, he has just lost his beloved father William (Paul Jesson) and that causes an aimlessness throughout the next several years. He soldiers on despite estate disputes from his first mistress Sarah (Ruth Sheen), with whom he had two children.

Timothy Spall
The Artist (Timothy Spall) and his canvas in “Mr. Turner”.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Turner also seeks comfort from his housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), but still cuts through the British art world with his eccentricities, travels for inspiration, and rendering of his masterpieces. A chance journey to a seaside resort yields another affair with Sophia (Marion Booth), a sailor’s widow who becomes a constant for the rest of Turner’s life. When he does go gently into the good night, he leaves thousands of oil and watercolor masterpieces.

The spotty nature of the story makes it a bit unsettling, but that is stylistically consistent with the works of Leigh. It is set in the unsanitary portion of Victorian England, and the grit and smell practically wafts from the screen. Timothy Spall is always an interesting actor and has worked with Mike Leigh before, so he offers a varied interpretation of the artist’s attitudes and life. There is no performance clue as to what the character of Turner will do, but as the scenes add up, a fuller portrait does emerge.

The visuals of cinematographer Dick Pope are the real star of the film. Since Turner is a landscape artist, there are several arresting visions of where his inspiration and perspective came from, including an incongruous maritime scene in which Turner is lashed to a ship’s mast. This is a big screen treat for appreciators of fine art in cinema – there is plenty to indulge in regarding the delicate marriage of painter and inspiration.

Turner’s carnal appetites are lustfully on display. He makes time with the housekeeper, a favorite prostitute and the sailor’s widow, all while trying to placate the mother of his children – strangely the aunt of his housekeeper – who in rejection makes his life miserable. Like everything in this interpretation of his life, Turner reacts as a man who hates being interrupted from his work.

His push back toward the British art world at the time is well on display. It’s easy to show that he was somewhat haughtily above the curious fellow artists who all display their works in a huge couple of rooms, as his career was both celebrated and reviled. His paintings now are considered super valuable, with a couple recently selling for over $30 million dollars. That would have put more of a smile on the old dog’s face even more than his appetites for the ladies.

The unique visions of master artists who become immortal through their paintings will forever intrigue the mere mortals who enjoy them, and the collectors who value them. And the “what is art?” question is briefly answered through the man that Leigh envisions – no wonder he deferred to him as “Mr.” Turner.

“Mr. Turner” continues its limited release, including Chicago, on December 25th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage and Ruth Sheen. Written and directed by Mike Leigh. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2014 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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