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« Steve Martin: 2015 AFI Life Achievement Award Honoree | Main | Interview: Matthew Warchus (Pride, God of Carnage, Matilda The Musical) on Stage and Screen Transfers »
Monday
Oct062014

NYFF: Mike Leigh's Exquisite and Frustrating 'Mr. Turner'

NYFF coverage continues with Michael C on Mike Leigh's latest 

When a film like Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner comes along you find yourself wishing you could take back all the “great cinematography” praise you tossed around so cavalierly on other films so that the words can carry more weight now that you really need them. Ideally, so far in 2014, one would have only applied the same praise to Darius Khondji’s work on The Immigrant. OK, yes, Under the Skin’s Daniel Landin also. It’s been an exceptional year.

Not content to merely display his paintings, Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope manage to permeate the air with the aura of J. M.W. Turner’s art. Some of the film’s images produced audible gasps at the screening I attended. The glory of the visuals grant Leigh and company the freedom to dispense with the many of the usual biopic clichés since we understand so much about Turner’s passion just by looking at the screen. Mike Leigh’s latest simulates what it might be like to see the world through the eyes of the great painter. This element alone makes Mr. Turner essential viewing.

And it’s a good thing we can appreciate Turner’s work without need of words, since the character, as played by Leigh favorite Timothy Spall, is certainly not going to explain it. At times it seems like the more rapturous the film’s visuals the more impossibly gruff the lead character. Mr. Turner puts me in the unfamiliar position of feeling that I did not get to know a Mike Leigh character as well as I would have liked. Which is not to say that Spall and Leigh haven’t done their usual world-class job of characterization. The fully formed character is there, no question. It’s simply that most of their fine work is sealed off from the audience behind a wall of Timothy Spall’s grunts and grumbles. There are long stretches where Mr. Turner is barely verbal, as if he poured so much of himself onto the canvas there was not enough left over to communicate with other human beings. Mike Leigh said in the press conference that Turner was a complicated character, capable of being both immensely taciturn and surprisingly articulate. Mr. Turner would have benefitted from including more of his articulate side.

It doesn’t help that Mr. Turner is a rare occasion when Leigh’s sense of story focus appears to be off. More than one digressions ends up feeling superfluous, circling the character without adding much to the larger portrait. There is one scene, for example, where Turner attends a recital at the home of a rich patron and young women scandalize and delight the audience by performing a bawdy song while Turner sits in the corner sketching. Again, the usual Mike Leigh richness is on display. Nobody does period pieces with the same lived in sense of detail, and the film is finely attuned to every dynamic at play in the room. It’s a wonderful scene, but it not one that Mr. Turner particularly needs. Compare that to a film like Mike Leigh’s Naked, which is another collage built out of digressions, but one where to cut a single frame is unthinkable, every detour an essential part of the whole.

Outside his painting, Turner is defined by his relationship with three women. There is his maid (Dorothy Atkinson) who dotes on him, and whom Turner mostly treats with indifference when he’s not using her as an outlet for his sexual urges. There is Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), the Margate innkeeper who becomes Turner’s partner in his later years and with whom he is at his most communicative (which isn’t saying much). And looming over it all is the character of his deceased mother, who went insane when Turner was a boy and whose memory is one of those things that remains walled up inside deep inside Turner, although those memories do break the damn and burst out in one of the film’s best scenes. 

Maybe my feelings of mild disappointment are because Leigh, like J.M.W. Turner, is becoming more impressionistic as his mastery increases. And by criticizing Mr. Turner for being less fulfilling than his previous works, I am no better than the small-minded people we see in Mr. Turner scoffing at the great painters increasingly abstract style, joking that he must be losing his eyesight (no less than Queen Victoria declares one canvas a “dirty yellow mess”). Maybe I should just lean back and let myself be swept up in the film’s glorious textures and dappled lighting. I should enjoy all the subtle variations in Spall’s symphony of phlegmy gurgles and let that be enough. But I will risk playing the role of the small-minded Philistine and point out that, while Mr. Turner is in many ways a considerable achievement, the emotional impact of Mike Leigh’s best work is absent from the canvas this time. B+ 

Mr Turner will be released on by Sony Pictures Classics on December 19th, 2014

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Reader Comments (12)

Oscar chances,are any of the supporting ladies worthy of note.

October 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

As for the business of Oscars...

Visual categories - costumes, production design, cinematography - sure thing. locked down. could win any of them.

Make up and best score are very possible

Acting nominations are going to be tough to come by. Atkinson and Bailey are both excellent but neither gets big showcase moments. They are both very much there to support Spall and almost never steal the spotlight for themselves, Although Atkinson does get the film's most moving moment in her last scene, it's a silent subtle one, which won't help her cause.

Spall's is a very big, attention grabbing performance but, as I said, it also not a very accessible one. In this tough year for Best Actor I don't see how he squeezes in.

I don't see Director and Picture as in play. Screenplay is always in possible for Leigh but I think the category is strong enough this year to not leave room the "We didn't love Mr. Turner but respect to Mike Leigh" nod, although I wouldn't rule it out. The film will have its fans.

October 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Off topic: Did anyone bother to see Inherent Vice?

October 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

michael c - i'm a little more hopeful than you in terms of an acting bid... but i'd wager that Marion Bailey has the best shot from the film as Mrs Booth. She's just so warm, cheerful and accessible while the rest of the film is grumpy, sad or (purposefully) off-putting.

October 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

3rtful: Roark saw it and mentioned it in a comment in the weekend box office post. Not a rave.

October 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I pretty much agree with everything Michael wrote. It's definitely a strong film, but one that given its very serious historical context (no Topsy-Turvy theatrical shenanigans for instance) doesn't feel like it has quite the aching humanity that we're so used to. The cinematography and production design are especially Oscar-worthy. Spall, despite his Cannes win, is far too gruff and one-note to get into the final five although I am sure he'll get some critics nominations along the way.

October 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Nat -

I agree that if any performance is going to grab a nod it will be Bailey, but only if some of the big presumed sources of supporting actress contenders like INTO THE WOODS or SELMA start flopping and opening up slots. I don't think the performance has the flash to grab a slot if it really has to fight for it, especially since the film will not have much by way of coattails.

Also, considering how consistently terrific the performances are in Leigh's films they don' t have the best track record with nominations. Only Blethyn, Baptiste and Staunton if memory serves.

October 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Michael C.: I'd argue Lizzy Caplan in The Interview (I'd guess of all the Christmas releases, it's actually the safest for Best Picture play, in spite of the low pedigree) is possibly a safer bet than the Into the Woods women.

My predicted 5, at the moment:

1. Viola Davis, Blackhat
2. Lizzy Caplan, The Interview
3. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
4. Carmen Ejogo, Selma
5. Carrie Coon, Gone Girl

Discuss plausibility.

October 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

VOLVAGIA -- you really need to get off this Interview & Blackhat train. it's just not the way Oscar works.and Blackhat wont even be eligible. Studios generally don't "qualify" run the movies they think of as commercial and, right or wrong, and action/comedies and action/thrillers are among the genres they care least about.

i love Carrie Coon (god she's great in The Leftovers) but I doubt she has the profile needed or steals enough of the movie (when the focus is all over the place since people like the whole cast and Pike a lot) for her to happen.

MICHAEL -- good point. Turner doesn't score well with the actors which is so weird. But I do think she has a better shot than Spall

October 7, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Now that you've got me thinking about it, the list of acting snubs for brilliant performances in Mike Leigh films is actually pretty astounding. Just look at this line up:

Sally Hawkins – Happy-Go-Lucky
Eddie Marsan – Happy-Go-Lucky
David Thewlis – Naked
Jim Broadbent – Topsy-Turvy
Anthony Manville – Another Year
Timothy Spall – Secrets and Lies
Jane Horrocks – Life is Sweet
Phil Davis – Vera Drake

In a just world Leigh would rival William Wyler in terms of getting actors nominated.

October 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Mike Leigh has done some wonderful films over the years, but Oscar is, unfortunately, about popularity, and none of the actors in Mr. Turner are American household names. What really hurts Spall is the fact that he will be squeezed out by Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbunch. Cumberbunch is very popular here because of his series, and it doesn't hurt that Harvey will be stomping for him, and Redmayne is playing someone who is better known than the great British artist that Spall is playing, as well as a real person, who is challenged and we all know how that goes over with Oscar (think My Left Foot). No doubt, Spall will win the BAFTA hands down, but sadly, there will be no love from Oscar. Pity, because Mr. Turner is a fine film, deserving of several acting nods. Oscar has changed quite a bit in the last ten years or so. Had Mr. Turner come out 30 years ago, it might have swept the Oscars. These days, if you're not popular in America, you don't get nominated, no matter how good you are. Don't believe it, just ask Marion Cotillard. Yes, she's won a very well deserved Oscar, playing Edith Piaf, but she gave two performances this year that blows away the entire actress competition and probably won't get nominated.

December 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy H

Just reading this review now after watching the film for the first time, and I have to say that I'm a bit disappointed. I think Michael is being far too kind in his review. Yes, the film is beautiful and all of the Oscar nominations it received were worthy. But it's such a slog to sit through. I just wish more people would stop trying to intellectualize everything and just come right out and say that this film is boring. It just is. I love Mike Leigh's work but this one just doesn't do it for me, and from the looks out it, most audiences that have seen it. Critics were being far too king with this one.

May 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

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