Review: 'Mr. Turner' Is A Layered Portrait Of An Artist

Walker Sayen ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner. Photo Credit: Simon Mein/Sony Pictures Classics.
Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner. Photo Credit: Simon Mein/Sony Pictures Classics.
Mike Leigh is a very distinctly British filmmaker. His movies are always marvelously written and meticulously crafted, with fine performances from Britain’s best character actors. From Topsy-Turvy to the Palme d’Or winner Secrets & Lies, Leigh’s voice has been characterized by dry wit and carefully constructed characters, and his newest film, the biographical drama Mr. Turner, is no exception. Mr. Turner tells the tale of the life and career British artist J. M. W. Turner, played to perfection by Timothy Spall.
This film is one of the most deliciously visual fiestas Leigh has ever constructed. The production design captures Turner’s world of the early nineteenth century in all of its dirt and spattered paint. Likewise, the cinematography of long time Leigh collaborator Dick Pope captures the landscapes, buildings, and people just as Turner himself would have painted them. The whole film is covered in a painterly yellow brown hue that characterized much of Turner’s work. One would think that if Turner were alive today, he would give Pope a pat on the back and his customary grunt of approval. Pope’s use of digital photography is so impressive in its colors and shades that it rivals even the best images on celluloid.
Lesley Manville, Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson and Dorothy Atkinson in Mr. Turner. Photo Credit: Simon Mein/Sony Pictures Classics.
Lesley Manville, Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson and Dorothy Atkinson in Mr. Turner. Photo Credit: Simon Mein/Sony Pictures Classics.
The film also gives long time character actor Timothy Spall (best known for playing Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter series) the chance to finally shine in a leading role. And boy, does he shine. He immerses himself in the artist’s gruff persona so intensely that by the end of the film, you believe Spall is in fact a tormented painter, a master of color and shape, and not a noted British thespian. By just looking in Spall’s eyes, you can see years of struggle. His eyes seem to bear witness to a master painter’s vision of a chaotic world.
What is ultimately so impressive about the film is that the collaboration between all the creative parties—between Spall and Leigh, Leigh and Pope, etc.—is that they create not just a biopic of a famous British painter, but also an exploration of the artistic temperament in general. Like so many of this year’s great movies (Birdman and Whiplash, for example), Mr. Turner is a story about what it means to be an artist and what it takes to create something meaningful. The film is ultimately a work by an aging filmmaker about his own creative journey. It seems to be a self-exploration, looking at years of artistic accomplishment and now seeing it in a different light. The film may be a tad dry (as are all Leigh films), but its vision of the struggle for true art is majestic and very interesting—especially when seen as part of a year of film that has focused on what it means to create art.
Overall Grade: B+

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One Comment

  1. Brilliant acting by Timothy Spall, I have some fair criticism of Mike Leigh’s film, Mr Turner in the book called TURNER TREES, I have links to the artist who is being featured on a £20 note in 2020.Details below by KEITH POTT TURNER:
    The genius ‘Painter of Light’ JMW Turner is a brilliant choice, and as I informed the Bank of England, I have links to the artist and I also have an ancestor who is the son of a draftsman called Sir Percivall Pott, Queen Victoria’s surgeon who lived at the site of the Bank of England at Threadneedle Street. Our relative, Miss Constance Pott, the pioneering graphic designer and etcher produced a picture titled New Bank of England. There is much more family history in the book TURNER TREES – link to Facebook page can be found below:

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