The Making of Art is not Pretty

Timothy Spall stars in Mr. Turner

Timothy Spall stars in Mr. Turner

Most movies tell stories.  Mr. Turner, about the English painter J.M.W. Turner just shows slices of his later life, giving the viewer a deep understanding of what drove the brilliant but eccentric artist.

Timothy Spall provides an award-worthy performance as the artist–in fact, he won the Best Actor Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival, yet was overlooked completely in this year’s Academy Award nominations.

Turner was a premier landscape and seascape painter of the early to mid 19th Century, often called “the painter of light” long before that hack Thomas Kincade usurped that title.  Because he cared little for posterity, he often used pigments that would fade over time, and much of his work is already fading into oblivion, yet his reputation lives on.

The movie doesn’t seem to have much of a plot, rather being a connected series of scenes from his life.  Turner was a curmudgeon, to say the least.  He is crass, crude, boorish and unpleasant, but accepted in the best artistic circles due to his overpowering talent.  His work predates, and in many ways anticipates, impressionism.  Brilliantly skilled in both watercolors and oil, he brought the techniques of the former to his palette of the latter, giving his paintings a depth not before seen.

His personal life was odd, to say the least.  He lived with his father until the old man died, an event which had a profound effect on the artist. (A flaw of the movie is that the actor playing the father, Paul Jesson, seems younger than the son.  Very confusing)  A long-term unmarried relationship with a widow produced 2 daughters, who the movie shows him ignoring, then privately mourning over the death of one.  His unattractive housemaid was apparently in love with him, although the attention he paid to her was in the form of tossing her against a piece of furniture for a quick one without grace or care.  The last 18 years of his life were spent with a another widow, Mrs. Booth, with whom he lived under an assumed name.

The movie is beautifully filmed, but the sound is terrible.  Watching it at home, Gail asked me if I was getting all the dialogue and I had to tell her 40% at most.  Turner seems to communicate largely in grunts and snarls, which doesn’t make things any easier to understand.

Mr. Turner was written and directed by Mike Leigh, in the slow-paced, gently opening-up style of European cinema.  Spend you two and a half hours getting to know JMW Turner.  Drink in the scenery, which Leigh has shot in the same kinds of light as Turner’s paintings.  Savor the lush costuming and architecture.  This is a very good movie, as long as you aren’t waiting for a car chase or an explosion.

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