Director: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Karl Johnson, Ruth Sheen.
Written by: Mike Leigh
Running Time: 150 mins
Release date: 31st October 2014
Mike Leigh’s biopic of the last part of the life of one of Britain’s greatest artist, J.M.W. Turner, has been lauded with top awards and excellent reviews. It has all the makings of a classic that could, once again, put us on the cinematic map. However, I cannot help but think that this is the kind of film where the critics have all jumped on the same bandwagon so not to look either out-of-place or be controversial by being honest. One of the reasons I became a critic was to be honest and I refuse to follow the pack. Mr Turner, while it has much to appreciate, is very boring.
J.M.W. Turner is a man highly regarded by the art collective for his brave and innovative approach to his work. Living with his father, who mixes his paints and builds his canvases, and with his housekeeper, Hannah, a woman who loves Turner and will do anything for him, his own private life is a mess. A failed marriage behind him where he acts as if his children don’t exist, he visits brothels in order to exploit the women, yet his genius at the canvas cannot be ignored. When his father dies, Turner finds life hard, although he does find some solace with the owner of a seaside boarding house, Turner’s paintings start to show the decline of a man.
Going into Mr Turner, you think you are going to learn about a man who you know little about. However, you come out learning that this bulldog of a character didn’t really have a decent bone in his body and that while he would go to extremes to get what he wanted from his paintings (including tying himself to the mast of ship in order to experience a storm) you find yourself caring very little for him and thus caring very little about his work either.
Leigh is obviously a huge fan but his leisurely pacing and lack of a real story to get his teeth into shows. Leigh is a master when it comes to small, personal dramas but on a wider screen, he falters, delivering just another small-scale tale but stretching it out and in the process, you find yourself lost in the grandeur of the cinematography, which is stunning and captures moments like a Turner painting but not truly caring for anyone inside that canvas.
At a bum numbing 150 minutes, it is far too long. The first hour being the most painful, where nothing is really explained, characters flit in and out with no introduction or sense as to why they are there and it only really starts to come to life when Turner loses his father and we see the process of how he painted and him slowly crumbling. Even then the last hour and a half are a struggle.
Not taking anything away from the production values, which are exception, the eye for detail and the impressive array of performances that somehow aren’t swamped by the award-winning Timothy Spall’s incredibly bullish Mr Turner. He commands the screen, a loutish, opinionated man who enters a room and everyone knows he’s there. Sadly, his triumphant performance is marred by the fact that you don’t emotionally become involved with him. In fact, he’s not a particularly nice fellow, who treats women as his own personal servants and, while being a genius at painting, has an air of being more like a thug.
The minor characters manage to be just a little more interesting and more amiable. Dorothy Atkinson as Hannah, Turner’s put upon housekeeper, is superb. A woman who quietly slips into the shadows and yet is aching in pain for the love of her master. Sometimes her scenes are more painful to watch. Marion Bailey’s Mrs Booth, the woman who Turner eventually falls for, is also a triumph of subtlety. She is one of the more delightful characters within the film.
There are lots to admire. The humour, when it comes, is very funny and there are some scenes that work well but for a film this long, it needed to grab your attention, tell a riveting story and keep you interested throughout. This certainly didn’t and it’s just not enough to have strong performances and beautiful photography to make it an acclaimed piece of cinema. A five-star film? Not even close.