NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: Mike Leigh has always been a detailed and passionate filmmaker. “Secrets & Lies,” “Vera Drake,” and “Another Year” are among the best of his career. When his newest venture “Mr. Turner” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, the word suggested he may have hit a new high. Sadly, this is his most dry and monotonous effort he’s executed. While his visual take on the life of J.M.W. Turner’s is among his most ambitious attempts, thanks to Cinematographer Dick Pope, outside of a few key scenes and good performances, the film lays lifeless like a PBS special on a Sunday afternoon.
The movie chronicles the life of British painter J.M.W. Turner during his exploits with a barrage of different women including his housekeeper, ex-wife, and his landlady. When his father dies, his art and life are profoundly affected.
Mike Leigh is intricate in his telling of Mr. Turner. His attention to detail is exquisite. Production Designer Suzie Davies, along with Set Decorator Charlotte Watts, construct an alluring atmosphere of time and history. Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran knits some dazzling and angelic cloth for all the actors. DP Dick Pope manifests a lens that resembles that of an authentic Turner painting. Bright colors, gorgeous sunsets/sunrises, and framing of certain scenes will make you take notice. Composer Gary Yershon invokes the spirit with his palpable music that elevates the bone dry material.
Timothy Spall has been a marvelous character actor for decades. Sprinkling his charisma in films like “Sweeney Todd” and “Topsy Turvy” have provided him with stunning reasons to be able to helm his own picture. I just didn’t see what the big deal was about this time around. Where he physically gets into his role, I’ve never seen him more stiff and unnatural in his line deliveries. He inflects Turner with mannerisms and beats that entirely distract from what’s going on. His constant growl and snarl makes him more like Danny DeVito as “The Penguin” than a 18th century painter. While he does have some satisfying moments, Spall doesn’t offer enough to pull you through the story.
The high points of the film are the three exceptional turns by the female characters. Beginning with the talented Dorothy Atkinson as Hannah Danby, Turner’s housekeeper, she layers a broken woman with ravishing resolve. She says so little yet so much with our own expressions. The elegant Marion Bailey evokes a performance you’d see from a veteran actress like Kathy Bates. Her magnetism adds a sensitivity that lacks throughout and ultimately captures the viewer’s attention every time she’s on screen. The glittering and scene-stealing Ruth Sheen embezzles every ounce of comical and emotional currency in her brief scenes. I prayed for more of her. As Turner’s adorable father, Paul Jesson makes the most of his screen time as does Lesley Manville.
Conclusively “Mr. Turner” has technical high points that will hypnotize the most avid movie lover. For the casual movie-goer, there is little to latch onto. At over two and a half hours, you’ll be looking at your watch, waiting for an end, or a mere emotional climax, that will wake you back up. Wistfully, that moment will never come. There are moments of laughter, as Spall grunts and moans more than a dozen times, and there’s history to revere at, with historical characters you may or may not know. I was fatigued and uninterested by credits roll. Judging on the reception from other critics that have seen it, this may be a vocal minority opinion about Leigh’s work.
“Mr. Turner” is a rare miss for Mike Leigh.
The film is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and opens in theaters December 19 (limited release).