Saturday, November 15, 2014

AFI Fest 2014: "Mr. Turner"

Director: Mike Leigh
Runtime: 150 minutes

Like the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, Mr. Turner works best when examined from afar. Mike Leigh has crafted a beautiful looking film that's often high enjoyable. Yet Britain's keenest observer of the human condition has perhaps done a little too much, well, observing with his latest effort. Turner's personality and his actions are clearly shown, but Leigh stays too far back and never gets to the heart of Turner's motivations outside of the most obvious interpretations. Timothy Spall, who picked up Best Actor at Cannes this year, does his best in the title role, but he's often reduced to playing up the same ticks long after they wear out their welcome. The real Turner painted with intense brushstrokes and head-turning amounts of detail at the smallest level. Mr. Turner, by contrast, barely completes a charcoal sketch by the time its two and a half hours come to a close.

Following the last 25 years of Turner's life, Mr. Turner's pacing is far from rushed. The artist paints, has meetings with potential patrons, and interacts with London's high society, among whom he is universally revered. By starting the film with Turner at the highpoint of his career, Leigh never has to rush through the early stretches of the film to reach any critical moment in his subject's life for the sake of drama. 

Leigh has built a reputation on allowing heavy amounts of improvisation from his actors, but Mr. Turner finds him working with far more pre-constructed material (or at least it feels that way). The film's runtime seems daunting, but Leigh's relatively tighter pacing of his scenes keeps the story from dragging. Even without much of a conventional narrative, Mr. Turner is filled with enough humor and beautiful craftsmanship to ensure that it's never less than pleasurable to experience. Leigh's longtime cinematographer Dick Pope has done of beautiful job of lighting the film like one of Turner's signature paintings, highlighting the exemplary work of the costume and set designers. Turner was known as a master of light, and Pope proves that's he's one as well, despite working in a radically different medium.

But all of that meticulously appointed beauty can't make up for the lack of insight given to Turner himself. Spall is clearly immersed in the role, but that immersion doesn't mean as much when it's not dealing with incisive writing. At times, Turner comes off as porcine cartoon of a man who grunts his way through scenes and then pinches his face in an unintentional Robert De Niro impression. The most compelling and empathetic character in Mr. Turner, shockingly, is Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), a widow who becomes Turner's last romantic partner. When Booth describes the loss of her first husband, some semblance of grounded human emotion starts to break through all of the handsome visuals. Sadly, moments like Mrs. Booth's recounting of her loss are few in number. Bailey has an affable screen presence that contrasts nicely with Spall's brusque eccentricity, and she stealthily becomes the heart of the story. If only the screenplay was willing to recognize this.

Instead, Turner's behavior, which at times is lecherous, is presented so plainly that one wonders if Leigh even has a point of view about the man's character. A point of view can be presented without manipulating the audience, but Mr. Turner prefers to stay too many steps back. Only when Leigh lets the viewer see the intensity of Turner's painting techniques does the character's genius come to light. But technique can only take a film or a performance so far. Mr. Turner shows Leigh and Spall working so thoroughly on their technique while forgetting to get into the intentions behind those techniques. Once the last brushstroke dries, there's little more to do than shake one's head in muted admiration before moving on to the next section of the gallery.

Grade: B- 

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