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Friday, October 3, 2014


Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner
Photo by Simon Mein, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

NYFF Review
2014, 149 minutes
Rated R for some sexual content

Review by Joshua Handler

Mike Leigh is one of the few consistently great filmmakers working today.  Every few years, he creates another film, and the quality ranges anywhere from very good to masterpiece.  His latest, Mr. Turner, isn't a masterpiece like Happy-Go-Lucky, Vera Drake, or Secrets & Lies, but is still a beautiful, fascinating film featuring a standout performance from Timothy Spall.  Mr. Turner is a biopic that tells the story of the last 25 years of the 19th Century British painter, J.M.W. Turner.

There are many reasons to see Mr. Turner, but the most notable ones are the acting and cinematography.  Timothy Spall is Turner and Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey lead the supporting cast, both giving subtle, layered performances.  Spall inhabits Turner.  Spall's Turner is pig-like in nature, grunting and scowling his way through life, while occasionally stopping to be lovable.  This character is ingenious, crazy, and moving.  With Turner, Spall has created a man who's both larger than life and a human being - it's no wonder he won the Cannes Film Festival's Best Actor award.

Dick Pope's cinematography is magical (he won the Vulcan Prize for the Technical Artist at Cannes).  I couldn't believe my eyes when viewing his work on Mr. Turner.  Pope brings Turner's world to stunning life.  The images are so perfect that Pope shared during the film's press conference that someone once asked him if one of the scenes was CGI'd.  "Like hell it is!" Pope replied to the man.  Some shots are so rich that they take on the look of a classical painting, making the world depicted both vibrant and repressed.

While I have an immense amount of respect for Mr. Turner, I cannot help but wish that this seemingly personal film was more emotionally engaging.  I adore Leigh's films because they're sensitive and incredibly moving.  With Mr. Turner, however, I was left emotionally cold, save for a few subtly heartbreaking scenes (one, in particular, will stay with me for a while).  Though I didn't connect to Mr. Turner emotionally, it doesn't mean that I don't think it is a good film.  On the contrary, this is one of the better films I've seen at NYFF this year (and there have been many great films).

Overall, Mr. Turner is a superbly-acted, exquisitely-shot, and typically well-directed film from Mike Leigh.  The slow pace and 149-minute running time will likely put some off, but if you're a Leigh fan, this is a must-see.  I can't get this film out of my mind.


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