Friday, October 3, 2014
A tour-de-force performance by character actor Timothy Spall brightens the otherwise languid Mr. Turner, director Mike Leigh's biopic of English painter J.M.W. Turner. Although filled with terrific performances from recurring members of Leigh's acting troupe, Mr. Turner revels a mite too long in the gorgeous landscapes that inspired Turner (as shot by cinematographer Dick Pope). At times, it allows one to consider the effect such vistas had on Turner's art. Often, though, the movie borders on the ponderous and only Spall's earthy grumbles and snorts keep us tethered to the movie's titular subject.
One inventive transition starts with Turner spitting, blowing chocolate powder, and applying thick yogurt onto a canvas already on display for possible purchase by the King of England, before dollying in on the painting and match cutting to a rocky landscape so picturesque that one initially mistakes it for the same painting until Turner walks into frame. But for every clever shot there are considerably more tedious ones. Don't misunderstand. Mr. Turner is a film of great beauty that has something significant to say about the way artists relate to their fans and critics. A scene has a young aristocrat extolling the virtues of Turner's work as he comically warbles his letter "R"s. But in doing so he feels the need to put down the work of Claude Lorrain, a painter who Turner happens to admire greatly. It's a moment that any artist is familiar with and one that Leigh appears to particularly identify with as a filmmaker constantly being misinterpreted by critics.
Mr. Turner's most bountiful rewards are to be found in watching Spall, usually relegated to playing odiously repulsive supporting characters, finally given a confident, and even sometimes romantic, leading part to play. J.M.W. Turner is cranky and ill-mannered, but he is extremely likable and devoted to his father William (Paul Jesson). Turner has his foibles, of course, especially in the way he uses his psoriatic housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) for sex. But the deep love he feels for his other mistress, Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) who accepts him with all of his faults, gives one the chance to see Spall stretch in ways he never quite has before. Mr. Turner may be too languorous a film to be counted among Leigh's most successful, but Spall and the rest of the cast make sure their performances live up to the caliber one expects from Leigh's direction.
Mr. Turner is playing at the 52nd New York Film Festival tonight at 9 pm and at 2 pm Saturday, October 4th at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023.
At 7 pm Saturday, October 4th, the festival presents Making Mr. Turner in which the cast and crew will discuss the film at the Film Center Amphitheater, 144 West 65th St (south side between Broadway and Amsterdam), New York, NY 10023.
At 2:30 pm Sunday, October 5th, the festival presents HBO Directors Dialogue: Mike Leigh in which the director will discuss his films at the Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th St (north side between Broadway and Amsterdam, upper level), New York, NY 10023. For ticket information go online here, or call CenterCharge at (212) 721-6500.