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The Creative Issue – News for Creatives | June 2, 2020

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Review: Mr. Turner

Review: Mr. Turner

| On 22, Dec 2014

Mike Leigh proves himself equal to his protagonist in this beautiful and unconventional biopic.

J.M.W Turner is undoubtedly one of the great painters of the English canon, and an artist about whom I have a lot of feelings. These feelings are mainly resentment, stemming from the time I got lost in an exhibit of his works and couldn’t extract myself for over an (highly traumatic) hour. However, even my bitter soul was entranced by Leigh’s remarkable work, a film that both rests firmly on its own laurels, and pays tribute to the importance of Turner’s legacy.

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Mr. Turner is the antithesis of a typical historic biopic, which generally follow waifish, misunderstood creatives (preferably played by Ben Whishaw) as they artfully die of consumption—alone, tragically young and still woefully unappreciated.

Turner, however, is introduced to the audience in the prime of his career and voluminous personal life; his world is replete with patrons, comforts, and grown-up illegitimate children. Timothy Spall does a splendid job of grumping and grunting through the role of a curmudgeonly and roundly unlikeable man, whose choices are frequently distasteful, whose sadness is mostly pathetic, and whose sex-life was excruciatingly awkward to watch.

Luckily, Turner’s likeability is neither the goal nor crux of the film, which relies far more heavily on its secondary characters to carry the story of his eventual fall from grace. It’s also the authenticity of these characters that grants Mr. Turner perhaps its greatest coup—being a period piece that avoids the pitfall of feeling like a period piece.

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Rather than mothy set-dressing, the surrounds of Victorian England are immersive and naturalistic, while the frivolities and failures of daily life feel immediate and relatable. Every character present in this picture, from a Philadelphian daguerreotype operator to wordless ferry passengers, brim with life, and bring to the screen a freshness that is alone worth the ticket price.

There are also several memorable cameos from other luminaries of the time (the young John Ruskin is particularly good value), and a surprising number of laughs for a very art-house production. If this film has a flaw, it’s that it does meander somewhat, without much by way of a defining plot or driving ideology. Yet, it’s a pleasant meander, like a casual stroll upon the heath, with enough interesting strangers, old friends, and beautiful sunsets to keep you thoroughly entertained.

Mr. Turner opens in cinemas on Boxing Day, and the trailer can be seen here.

Image credits: Transmission Films