Cert: 12A / 150 mins / Dir. Mike Leigh
Once every so often, a film comes a long which leaves my significant other and myself a little lost for words upon leaving the cinema. The initial 'Well, what did you think..? is answered cagily either way; it's not that the movie was actively disliked at all, but we struggle to sum things up in a positive light. And although we'll attempt to push the elements we liked of the evening's entertainment to the top of our list, the rest of the journey home is spent listing the ones we didn't.
Which brings us to Mr Turner.
A two and a half hour film with an hour's worth of story, the director Mike Leigh often seems to mistake plodding-unpleasantness for character-building, and we're treated to Timothy Spall's admittedly robust performance of a tortured creative, struggling to balance his personal artistic vision, public favour for his work and his personal responsibilities. Except we don't actually see any of the tortured stuff. At the start of the film, Turner is a successful artist taking trips around the world for inspiration alone before returning to his central London house/studio, with its bolt-on private gallery where he sells his paintings to art connoisseurs and nobility alike. Painting is his job, his life and his passion. It's also an activity he has the financial freedom to pursue. So other than an underlying (and largely overlooked) personality disorder rooted in his past, there's really very little to 'explain' the bad-tempered, misanthropic misogynist that we spend the film with. His issues with women are illustrated frequently, but rarely explored. Leigh by no means paints him in sympathetic colours, but other than a downward spiral of angst and mental instability, there's no development of his character (and I say 'character' because I don't know enough about the actual William Turner to judge whether the screenplay is a celebration, a portrait or a full-on character assassination of the man).
And yet the character of Mr Turner himself isn't one of the film's major flaws, somehow. Timothy Spall brings enough of his own madness to the role to keep him acutely interesting, if nothing else. Even such an accomplished actor, however, is hamstrung by a horrendously unwieldy script - although his in-character monosyllabic grunts convey far more emotion than his lines. The rest of the cast have lesser rates of success with the same challenges (to the point where Ruth Sheen as Turner's estranged wife sounds as if she's reading the lines for the first time as the cameras roll), and the film really becomes more about physical acting than exchanges of dialogue.
Areas of narrative interest (the 'revealing' of his real name to his Margate landlady and prospective partner / Turner's work falling out of public favour / his relationships with his contemporaries) are either glossed over, skipped over or outright abandoned. The film plays out like a dramatised documentary with no-one narrating the events you feel should be being examined. Bizarrely, it a single scene we get not only a direct reference to the Zong slaveship which formed the central thread of the costume drama Belle, but the matter being discussed with young art critic John Ruskin, whose older self appears in Pre-Raphaelite mope-fest, Effie Gray. It occurred to me then that Mr Turner really rounds off a trilogy of visually fascinating films which should really be so much more involving, given the nature of the stories they tell.
I didn't dislike Mr Turner's composition, but I disliked too many things about its execution.
And I know that the shots that are needed of Turner's beloved Margate are no longer feasible in Margate itself. The landscape and scenery has changed far too much for what's required, so I understand why those shots weren't filmed there. But if you can't actually film Margate in Margate, at least film somewhere which looks like Margate. Or even like Kent for that matter. There is not - and has never been - a tree-topped cliff on the Western side of the promenade which the sun sets behind. After all, it's not like Turner actually had any time, respect or love for the place. Y'know, like to the point where they built an art gallery and named it in his honour, or anything. So why try for accuracy, right? I rather suspect that someone has imagined the elevation of the setting in this picture to be higher than it actually was.
And I know - I know - it's an absolutely minute fraction of the audience who will pick up on this, but when you do that in your film, it looks like you don't care.
And if you don't care, why should your audience?
No, if I'm being honest.
I have no idea.
Sunday evening DVD, at best.
I won't want to, but I will.
I don't want to, and I won't.
There bloody well isn't.
That's it for 17th/18th century art-films for this year though, right?
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