Victorian painter JMW Turner (1775-1851) may have been a curmudgeonly philanderer in his personal life, but he certainly doesn’t warrant the indignity of this insufferable film, Mr Turner, directed by Mike Leigh and on the art-film circuit in South Africa, at the moment.
While a good part of this 150 minute long production reflects inconsequential snapshots of a life captured under a Venetian yellow filter, with lots of dark shadow, cobble-stone roads and period costume, sprinkled with an inappropriate sense of moment when nothing is happening, there’s a total lack of substance to the manner in which Turner, the man, is reflected. And what we get, instead, is a disrespectful and specious foray into the life of an iconic art historical hero, who, in real life, in skirting with unpopularity, effectively established the cornerstone of modern art.
Some beautiful photographic moments conjoined with ugly depictions of emotion, reflections of fiddly bad sex with a servant woman — played by Dorothy Atkinson — covered in a rash which progressively and inexplicably worsens, and a whole river of red herrings in the telling of the tale causes this film to have no redeeming features: the acting is unconvincing – Timothy Spall characterises his interpretation of this character with grunts and snarls that border on the cruel and comical, making Turner at times feel socially backward.
But more that, the performances are disparagingly one-dimensional, leaving no emotional wisdom in any of the characters. John Ruskin, for instance, important critic of his period, is reflected as a foolish prat — played by Joshua McGuire — who exists within his parents’ shadow and makes preposterously stupid remarks. The madam in the brothel looks so much like the mother of Turner’s daughters that more of the plot gets broken and lost because you become confused as to who is who. But all this is mere detail: the film’s narrative is sorely in need of editing and the musical score doesn’t lend anything to the work. There is no flow. You don’t emerge curious about the man, the movement, the period. It leaves you completely uninspired.
If you have a background in the material, you will recognise elements. Your heart will be gladdened to see the cameo appearance of John Constable — played by James Fleet — a contemporary of Turner’s. You will recognise the strictures of the Salon, so endemic to the 18th century’s art world and you will understand the odd novelty of the daguerreotype, an early manifestation of the camera. If you don’t know any of this context in relation to Turner’s work, life and the texture of the world in which he lived, this film will not help you. There are no markers to hold onto, no narrative handrails to make this piece legible or valuable from a knowledge yielding perspective.
It is astonishing to consider the slew of awards and accolades this production has achieved since its UK debut during 2014. Are critics and audiences in awe of the subject matter? Or do they feel that mind-numbing boredom is necessary in a work that engages with the solemnity of Art? Does the period style compromise their critical edge? Is it that Mike Leigh has created so much good work that people have become precious about him? Either way, if you want a spot of intellectually stimulating, beautiful entertainment, you’ve not going to get it here.