“Mr. Turner”: Being a great painter is mostly grunt work

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“Mr. Turner” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 2:30, three stars out of four. I’ll host a post-show chat about the film on Tuesday, March 3 after the 7:15 p.m. show.

A famous J.M.W. Turner painting appears in the last James Bond movie, “Skyfall.” Bond meets the new Q (Ben Whishaw) in front of Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire,” which shows an old warship being towed away to be turned into scrap metal. Q suggests the painting illustrates “the inevitability of time,” a dig at 007’s age, but all Bond sees is a “bloody big ship.”

One could approach Mike Leigh’s biopic, “Mr. Turner,” from much the same perspectives. You could look at the largely plotless narrative covering the last quarter of the British painter’s life and see themes and insights into the man and his work emerge. Or you could just see him as a bloody big ship.

As played by Leigh favorite Timothy Spall, Turner is a big badger of a man who seemingly never said a word when an inarticulate grunt would do. By turns crusty, selfish and sentimental, “the painter of light” seems to treat his paints as a plumber would his wrenches, just the tools of his trade. Yet there’s a sensitivity inside that tough hide, and an ego, that occasionally emerges.

Leigh deliberately avoids trying to explain the man, instead presenting a series of isolated vignettes, offering no historical context or titles to explain where we are or what we’re seeing. It took me a while to realize that Turner’s close companion an aide was actually his father (Paul Jessup) until his death seemed to rock Turner so.

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We see Turner hobnob with other painters and royalty, cruelly use his disfigured housekeeper for sex, coldly spurn his illegitimate daughters. But then he meets a woman in the seaside village of Chelsea and is unexpectedly smitten with her, though he keeps their relationship a secret from his friends in London. Unlike a conventional biopic like “The Imitation Game” that attempts to draw clear cause-and-effect between one event and the next, Leigh refuses to explain or judge his subject. The “Mr.” in title suggests the respectful distance he keeps.

And then there’s the paintings. At times, “Mr. Turner” elevates out of his grubby life and shows us the world as he saw it, with breathtaking cinematography by Dick Pope of the landscapes and seascapes that inspired Turner’s paintings. We even see him witness the Temeraire being towed off, although Wikipedia tells us in real life Turner probably never witnessed this himself.

“Mr. Turner”‘s refusal to provide a narrative frame for Turner’s life can be frustrating — for the first hour or so I felt totally at sea, unsure what I was seeing or what I was supposed to take away fro it. But over its 150-minute running time, the character gradually comes into focus, a man of great gifts and low appetites who strode defiantly to his own rhythm. So does his movie.

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