By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Cannes Competition Review: Mr. Turner

mr turner“I wanted to make a film about [J. M. W.] Turner, the personality,” director Mike Leigh said in a recent interview commissioned by the Tate Modern. And that is  what he did with Mr. Turner, writing and directing the second film in Competition at Cannes 2014, one that kicks off what will likely be a tight race for the festival’s Best Actor prize.

Joining Leigh for the sixth time is Timothy Spall as the beloved British artist, and as seen in 1996’s Secrets & Lies, the Spall/Leigh combination is a great one. Spall’s nuanced performance as the grunting, guttural Mr. Turner carries the film throughout its hefty, noticeable 149-minute running time. “He is so complex, and there’s so much of him to get your head around,” Leigh said of the painter, and his film is certainly a testament to that; the same is abundantly true for Spall’s ability to really tap into the character.

Looking at the final decades of Turner’s life, the film compresses a quarter-century of narrative  to create a portrait of the artist as complex as he truly was. A survey of the events: Turner paints, he travels, he loves, and he counsels with members of the Royal Academy of Arts (played to perfection by a cast of Leigh regulars, including Lesley Manville as Scottish polymath Mary Somerville). By his side is the pitiable Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), Turner’s housekeeper who is utterly ignored by the man despite loving him unrequitedly. Jumping late into his life, we see what makes the artist tick, what inspires him, and what eventually kills him. There’s also an interesting intersection between art and technology here, as the science of light and optics is introduced to the artist in the twilight of his years (a thoughtful scene depicting Turner’s first self-daguerreotype is just one example).

The film’s art department, and Leigh’s trusted cinematographer Dick Pope, are to be commended. The mise-en-scène and dramatic blocking of Mr. Turner are inarguably exquisite; the latter of which being typical of Leigh, whose  background in theatre is confidently called to play here. In populated scenes, we always see the faces of each actor in frame; their angles and positions relative to each other are classic to the stage but work brilliantly here, too. Long takes and deliberate dollies allow us to pore over what is definitively inspired set design, with many of the tableaux directly adapted from Turner’s catalog. It may take a trip to the Tate and a second viewing of the film to catch all of these visual references—some of them more obvious than others—but this homage is a subtle yet excellent use of the medium, and deepens the film thematically.

Though much of the film is immaculate, the sum total lacks an emotional weight to lift the biography off the canvas. A whining score and Turner’s grouchy disposition add to the difficulty to feel “moved” by his life’s events, of which there are a lot of. The artist is aging and that is a sad reality, but there’s nothing truly affecting about this inevitability; moreover, certain threads are harped on more than once, generally overstaying their welcome.

Turner’s relationship—or lack thereof—with his housekeeper is an exception, and I found myself more interested in this character than Turner himself. His sexually abusive behavior towards her leaves Hannah miserable and confused, and it’s one of the only emotionally compelling aspects to the entirety of this biography. Her character is a reminder that Mr. Turner is primarily a well-acted, well-shot dramatization of non-events, though that truth doesn’t necessarily detract from what remains an accomplished tribute to the painter of light’s mastery—or, for that matter, Spall’s proficient portrayal.

One Response to “Cannes Competition Review: Mr. Turner”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    Is it too much to ask that reviewers know that Leigh is depicting an artist creating paintings at the end of his life that were revolutionary in his time and remain so to this day?

    How is it that people pronounce about film without knowing Turner?

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
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“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
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