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4 November 2014

Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

Every time Mike Leigh releases a new film, it gets great reviews and I think I'm really going to like it. Somehow, I always manage to forget that they always en up disappointing me, as was the case with his latest movie, Mr Turner, a sort of biopic of the last 25 years in the life of the painter J.M.W. Turner (played here by Timothy Spall). I knew little about Turner before going to see the film, and I'm hardly an art buff — or even that interested in art — but I do like a good biopic, and Timothy Spall is usually entertaining. I didn't hate the film, but with a running time of 2h30 it was way too long and I'm not sure that I knew much more about the brilliant but eccentric painter at the end of the movie than the start.

Part of the problem is the dialogue, or lack thereof. Spall's Turner communicates almost entirely through grunts. Impressively expressive grunts, but still grunts. His facial expressions and eyebrow movements are also remarkable to the point of caricature. It's a wonderful performance from Spall — one that deserves nominations come awards season — even if it doesn't portray Turner in a particularly positive light.

Then there is the lack of plot. Essentially, we see Turner waddling around his London home, grunting at his ageing father (Paul Jesson) and sexually exploiting his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), and then provoking his fellow painters at the Royal Academy. He visits brothels — to paint, of course, although there is more grunting — and he travels down to Margate where he begins a relationship with the newly widowed Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). When he wants something — especially from a woman — he just takes it. His relationship with his illegitimate daughters is almost non-existent and indeed, when asked if he has children, he just says no. Nonetheless, the popularity of his paintings continues to increase despite his unorthodox artistic methods: spitting on the canvas to achieve the perfect wash, for example, and using various foods to produce the perfect colour.

Most of this happens in the first 45 minutes of the film and is then repeated ad infinitum as Turner ages. There isn't really much character development or a sense, by the end of the film, that we know the character portrayed any better, although I liked him a lot less. Meanwhile, the various women in his life seem to cower in the background, waiting for him to return and to give them a crumb of his affection. There is a brief cameo by Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) — one of the first popular science writers — and her prism, but the scene felt as though it had been tacked on at the end. I would be much more interested in seeing a biopic of her!

Sure, Mr Turner is a beautiful film and it does have some funny and entertaining moments, but unfortunately, it's generally quite tedious.

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