Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Mr. Turner

Ah-(S)palling and Splendid

     Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner examines English genius painter J.M.W. Tuner and the Romantic movement. It shows what this artist sees and what led to his work, rather than focusing on him working.  Its counterpoint is the griminess of everyday life
in England in the 1830s and 1840s.  Its grottiness factor is up there with Léolo (1992) and Iris (2001); it made me thankful for indoor plumbing and running water.  

Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner
     When it ended, the charming woman beside me turned to her husband and said, “I don’t know what to say or think,” and I could hear her internal, mental gulp.  I thought two things: (1) Turner’s paintings are probably the greatest English visual works and presaged everything from Monet to Minimalism, and (2) I’ll never have those three hours back again.  I hate to sound like some smart-ass faux philistine or a bitchy old queen, but Mr. Turner is a movie I can respect and admire, but not like.  Good Fellas (1990) was another case of a movie that I recognized as being almost great, but could not recommend because I objected so much to the glorification of a lifestyle I find reprehensible and I couldn’t stand Ray Liotta’s smirk in the last frames.  (This is not synonymous with my intense dislike for most of the crap that plays to 12 year olds and those that think like them at the multiplex). 

Stunning Cinematography from Dick Pope
     Dick Pope’s cinematography splendidly captures the light that was Turner’s life force and ends up as the star of this movie.  The hair and make up are realistic and witty, especially the frightening psoriasis that plagues Turner’s housekeeper Hannah, played with complete conviction by Dorothy Atkinson (she looks like she could be Kay Kendall’s daughter in real life).  She engenders strong emotion in the 
Dorothy Atkinson
final, poignant scene, but here’s one of the two major problems with the movie:  it’s the first scene where I felt much of anything for one of the characters.  The other issue is that neither Neil nor I could tell where the movie was going plot-wise for an hour.  It sort of took off when a sweet character died.  After that, it felt like we were in for the long haul until Turner croaked.  And we were for a verrrrrry loooooooong tiiiiiiiiiime.

     For a work about the Romantics, the tone would make Zola and the Naturalists feel right at home.  Leigh’s movies are possibly the most lived-in of any living director and it’s because of his long period of improvisation with the actors, followed by writing, and rehearsal.  In this case, there was intense research as in his earlier historical works Topsy-Turvy (1999) and Vera Drake (2004).  Remarkably, none of these look anything alike in terms of lighting or art direction even though Leigh has worked with the same team.  Yes, they’re set in different periods (1828 – 1851, 1884 – 1885, 1950, respectively), but the visual tones are individually unique.

Hanging the Salon Show
     The cast is uniformly exemplary, though that is as true of all of Leigh’s work as it was of Altman’s.  Timothy Spall has been lauded for his performance as Turner, but of the major overlooked male Oscar nominees, I prefer David Oyelowo in Selma, Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood, and Miles Teller in Whiplash.  Lisa, Neil, and I were on a boat trip in Chicago years ago and we saw Timothy Spall.  He realized we knew who he was because of our predilection for Leigh’s movies, although none of the other passengers even noticed him.  We went up on deck so that he wouldn’t think we were stalkers, while he proceeded to get potted.  That’s sort of how he performs this role, except he grunts continually, which Neil read as historically accurate in The New York Times, and paints.  Turner demonstrates great respect for other artists, but is awful to women, except the mistress, who becomes his nursemaid.  There’s one fully clothed sex scene that’s so awful for the woman involved that I could barely look.  If Monty Python had gotten away with performing it in the ‘70s with Terry Jones playing the female in drag, it might have had a perverse kick, but this seemed exploitative (by the character and the movie) and sad.

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