MR. TURNER gave Timothy Spall, busy honing his craft for 36 years, the role of a lifetime (well, so far, he’s only 58) in this marvelous 2014 biopic of England’s greatest painter, the complex and irascible J.M.W. Turner. Masterfully written & directed by Mike Leigh (his best film to date, in a basket of good ones).
Leigh & his rumpled-to-perfection star cover the last 25 years in Turner’s life: he died in 1851 at the age of 71. The ‘painter of light’ and his arresting ethereal watercolor landscapes delighted and confounded highbrow and hoi polloi alike during his feisty life, and opened the canvas door for Impressionism.
Leigh’s production design is so careful and smart it soaks every scene in authenticity, the rich detail giving the relatively small-scale film the look of a populated epic, and the glorious colors that Turner saw in his mind’s eye coat the frame, thanks to the camera artistry of Dick Pope. It’s a dreamy experience to just gaze at.
At 144 minutes it does go on a bit, and general audiences liked it only half as much as critics, if the layman comments on aggregate review sites are an indication. But if you adjust to the pace (I had no trouble, it could have gone on and I’d have been content) it wraps you in a special place and period, and peeks into a full-blooded portrait of a multifaceted fellow: brusque and enraptured, stricken and dismissive, generous and spare.
Spall makes vocal magic out of grunting noises—he must do a hundred variations of harumphs and snorts as Turner stomps his way through people and places, leaving all more than a little marked by his boisterously honest passage. It’s a sensationally deep performance that should have netted an Oscar nomination, like those that went to the film’s Cinematography, Costume Design, Music Score and Production Design.
With Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Leslie Manville, Martin Savage, Joshua McGuire. Brought in for $12,500,000, it returned $18,000,000, nice haul for an art-house film. Good double bill with Frida.