Mr. Turner
dir-scr Mike Leigh
prd Georgina Lowe
with Timothy Spall, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Martin Savage, Joshua McGuire, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Peter Wight, Fenella Woolgar, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, James Fleet
release UK 31.Oct.14, US 19.Dec.14
14/UK Film4 1h30
Mr. Turner
Ignore the critics: Spall

manville wight woolgar
london film fest
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
Mr. Turner At age 71, Mike Leigh continues to prove that he's one of the nimblest filmmakers working today. By avoiding the pitfalls of a formulaic plot, he reinvents both the costume drama and the celebrity-artist biopic. Packed with humour and sardonic honesty, this exploration of the life of iconic painter JMW Turner is simply gorgeous.

In the 1820s, Turner (Spall) courted controversy with visceral landscapes that sparked both admiration and withering criticism. But his financial success meant he could do what he wanted. Living with his father (Jesson) and housekeeper Hannah (Atkinson), Turner ignored or openly reviled his critics. He was oblivious to the two daughters he fathered with Mrs Danby (Sheen) and set up home incognito with a mistress, the widow Sophia Booth (Bailey). But as his surly eccentricities began to make him a joke in social circles, he continued to push boundaries in his approach to his work.

Spall is terrific as the anarchic womaniser who never married and resorted to extreme measures to create his paintings. In a pivotal scene, he straps himself to a ship's mast to feel what it's like to be in the middle of a storm. Indeed, many paintings feature intense weather, and Spall plays the painter as a hurricane. Grumpy and monosyllabic, he brushes off anyone who disparages his work, even when Queen Victoria scowls at his painting at the Royal Academy. He is only ever himself around Sophia, and to her he insists he's merely "Mr Mallard".

Leigh sets this up without any overt plotting. The film simply observes Turner's life, interaction with a variety of people and the reaction of society around him. It's beautifully staged, but never drifts into the usual period-drama flourishes. Instead this is a bracingly gritty film packed with offbeat characters who veer from blackly comical barbs to darkly disturbing bitterness. Spall is simply mesmerising, bouncing off each member of the large supporting cast: maximum impact from minimal acting.

Every element of the film works to subvert the usual formula, from Jacqueline Durran's constraining but colourful costumes to Gary Yerson's meaty score. Most important, of course, is Dick Pope's staggering cinematography, which cleverly recreates Turner's imagery by making the most of any light source available. But the focus is always tight on the actors, and even without an overt narrative structure the film is utterly gripping over its entire two and a half hours.

cert 15 themes, language, sexuality 18.Aug.14

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© 2014 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall