Another instalment in a successful series of long-term collaborations between a director and an actor is always something to look forward to. Mr. Turner puts Timothy Spall back in front of Mike Leigh’s camera as the early 19th Century romantic painter J.M.W. Turner, spanning several years towards the end of the painter’s life.
When we first meet Mr. Turner he is in the Dutch countryside sketching a landscape. We see the windmill and the setting sun, he sees something else. We are then thrust into the man’s London home and meet his housekeeper and father who are both overjoyed by his return. But Turner wants his easel up and heads straight to the studio. The man is gruff and subtly charismatic, and while this opening sequence is unspectacular, Spall’s performance gives it a certain addictive energy.
This doesn’t last though, and the film trawls aimlessly onwards, not quite sure what story it’s trying to tell beyond the facts of a famous man’s life. Through familiar biopic refrains of deaths and rejections you’re left questioning why the editor didn’t hire a hatchet-man to chop this story down to something manageable. Instead of an intricate and considered story progression we get scenes plonked next to each other for no other purpose than their chronology.
This is all the more frustrating for the fact that there is a great film somewhere within Mr. Turner’s 150 minute runtime. The exploration of the man’s fear of grief as being a reason for his rejection of his daughters or his inherent loneliness is fascinating and subtly handled. The odd scenes of artistic melodrama, largely instigated by the character of Benjamin Haydon, as well as the gruff art criticism conversations held with a dandy personification of John Ruskin are engaging and play to Leigh’s half-absurdist style of direction.
Similarly, the scene’s that explore Turner’s method reveal the artist’s passion, particularly when he has himself tied down to a ship’s mast during a storm so that he might experience the fear and energy of the elements. Bronchitis seems to be a small price to pay for the chance to see the world from a different perspective and to be able to paint something new and exciting.
But what is Leigh’s method here? Nothing concrete links all these disparate themes together to any believable degree, except perhaps for the pouting face and grumbling voice of Timothy Spall. As good as that is, it’s not enough. Amadeus gave sense to its telling of Mozart’s life with its framed narrative device, as F. Murray Abraham bemoaned the genius of the composer against his own inferiority. Turner stumbles from one scene to the next, only keeping up the illusion of purpose for so long. A resizing of the film’s canvas would only benefit the experience of watching it. In cinemas 31 October 2014. Watch the trailer here.