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David Poland

By David Poland

Cannes Review: Mr. Turner


Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner is a movie about an artist who is past his moment of greatest glory. A biopic only in that it rests on a historic figure in art, this is not a film about Turner’s inspiration or his method or his history. It is about the other side of the mountain, the apex of which Turner reached before the first shot of this film.

The recent film I was most reminded of stylistically is The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which the canvas of the film was both sublime and irrelevant. Inhabiting this director’s world, instead of Wes Anderson’s Rube Goldberg madness and hyper-real characters, is Timothy Spall’s grunting and grounded Turner and the tiny group of supporting players in his life, as subtle as Anderson’s are explosive.

Like the concierge at the center of Grand Budapest, Turner is a well-established force of nature in his world. But our story (without Budapest‘s flashbacks) starts with Turner’s creeping awareness of being past his prime, increasingly unsettled, starting with the loss of his father… his greatest fan and deepest enabler. The void created by the loss of the one person he truly loves sends him deeper into solitude and fear.

He finds peace (and great light) In the home of Mr. & Mrs. Booth. The Mr. instantly embodies the strong father that Turner never had, though there is no real relationship and he Mrs. will become Turner’s lover/mother, the next only person he will ever love.

Turner is a man, In this film, who wants it both ways… everything both ways. He both wants to humiliate an artist who is working in his milieu and to reassert his power to those around him. A dab of red paint serves both causes. He wants to sell his work, but also wants to secure a place in art and national history for all to see for free. He seeks to both criticize his peers and to defend them against glib criticism from others. He seeks his deepest love under an assumed name.

Even in his work, after having achieved name-brand status, which matters deeply to him, he pushes further into less literally representational art, driven as much by spite as a clear aesthetic goal.

Leigh works with Dick Pope for the tenth time, but reportedly the first time on digital. One of the central themes of the film is the light… more so than in any previous Leigh film. We see the world from Turner’s perspective… the hyper-magical light as he saw it and then recreated it on canvas. And it is magnificent.

Spall is amazing. But Spall is almost always amazing. The parade of Leigh Company Actors is here, each a delight. Whether it’s the near-silent performance of Dorothy Atkinson as the housekeeper and occasional sex partner, Hannah, or Marion Bailey as the wise Mrs. Booth, who has already buried two husbands, or briefs appearances by Lesley Manville or Ruth Sheen… all a pleasure to watch.

But the question of how you identify yourself on that downslope, fighting and fearing and succumbing to time… even from that highest perch… makes the experience of the film a rich, challenging, rigorous one.

9 Responses to “Cannes Review: Mr. Turner”

  1. LYT says:

    I read the whole review and I still don’t know who Mr. Turner is historically or what his first name is.

    Looking at the pic I assumed he was an engineer. He’s an artist?

  2. David Poland says:

    Then I have done my job, Luke.

    The movie is not an art history biopic..

    And he was called Billy by his father and some others… Turner by most.

  3. Bob Burns says:

    and our friend, Mr Poland, doesn’t know that these late works are triumphs – among the most important paintings in art history.

  4. Breedlove says:

    I need to go on a Mike Leigh binge. Haven’t seen a lot of his stuff, most in fact I’m embarrassed to admit. That last one was so good, the one with Broadbent puttering around in the garden.

  5. Mdmovers says:

    Not bad, He’s an artist?

  6. Daniella Isaacs says:

    This was clearly a quickly dashed off review, as the typos prove, but still… Anyone who knows anything about art history would know who David is talking about based on the fact that he’s identified as an artist who is clearly British. Even though the name Turner is more common than, say, Warhol, referring to a British artist named Turner is like saying “the American artist Warhol.” In textbooks he would be identified fully as J.M.W. Turner.

  7. spacesheik says:

    Excellent, well written Cannes reviews, Dave, keep them coming.

  8. cadavra says:

    Not knowing who the subject of a movie is should not be a reason to avoid it. Aren’t films–especially those based on fact–supposedly to be enlightening? I confess I’m not familiar with Mr. Turner or his work but I’m keen to see this picture.

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