At a time of year when the sky is as grey as dirty snow, say hello to the color, drama and emotion of “Mr. Turner.”
“Topsy” was an expansive tale about 19th century operetta composers Gilbert and Sullivan.
The more formal “Turner,” set during the era preceding theirs, portrays the landscape artist J. M. W. Turner as a transitional figure of sorts.
He painted storms, castles and sea battles but also pastoral scenes. A picaresque opening sequence in Holland slowly goes wide to reveal Turner drawing it.
He is later shown lashing himself a ship’s mast a during a storm, the better to capture its fury. He was meticulous about light and color and later in his career developed modernist tendencies that offended rich sponsors whose salons and drawing rooms were the cultural nerve centers of their day.
To call the work of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dick Pope painterly is an unavoidable cliche.
He shot the film digitally and captures the detail and dynamic color range of the artist’s world. The costumes and production design also reflect the ornate decorative arts of the day.
Timothy Spall – named best actor at the Cannes Film Festival – plays Turner, as a brusque and brutish man, devoted to and living with the aging father who mixes his paints according to specific formulas, and a housekeeper who was his mistress and for whom their crude, one-sided assignations were love.
He is also married to a bitter woman he neglects and father to children he never sees. He is a stout and scowling man, in top hat and with sideburns, who grunts responses in conversation. He is a creature of the Victorian social codes and comfortable in the camaraderie of peers and patrons.
But he also glimpses the future approaching like the locomotive rushing past that blows a single smoke ring (a natural, not digital effect, Pope has said). He figuratively attends his own funeral one night at a play that contains a joke about him and lives long enough to witness the next era in visual expression – photography.
In his later years, he settled down with a widow in a cottage by the Thames. At his death he bequeathed his works to “the people in London” and it survives him today. It is stored in various British museums despite his wishes it be displayed in one place. Leigh’s film is a worthy addition to the collection.
Three and one half stars ***1/2
With Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Produced by Georgina Lowe. Written and directed by Mike Leigh. Rated R: sexual content. Approximate running time. 150 minutes.