Another towering achievement by the great writer-director Mike Leigh’s (Secrets & Lies, Another Year) remarkable career, his latest film "Mr. Turner" is an unusual biopic, a luminous portrait of the great British painter J.M.W. Turner, who was a visionary and tormented artist who lived a life of great eccentricity, repression, and artistic beauty.
"Mr. Turner" in a way is a return to form for Leigh, in many ways it visually echoes his 1999 film "Topsy-Turvy" in approach and tone, yet at the same time it's nowhere near as exuberant, but it carries more emotional weight. Leigh uses his filmmaking process that involves allowing his actors to have artistic freedom as they spend months, in this case years workshopping the screenplay, and writing the drama that they help create and improvise. The films lead, played in a career defining performance by Timothy Spall spent two years to paint like Turner in the film, so all the paintings you see that emulate Turners work on screen, is in fact done by Spall.
The saga of Mr. Turner takes place over the last quarter century of the artist’s life, ending with his death in 1851 where he was said to mutter the words "The sun is god". The film is rather a portrait and reflection of Turner, has it unravels in a episodic matter by introducing many admirers, detractors, lovers, friends, and family members. of Turner. Leigh chooses to let the dramatic flow from one period of Turner's life to the next, without intruding it with bulletin points you can read off Wikipedia. I admire Leigh for not allowing Mr. Turner to fall into the typical biopic trappings.
Leigh examines the last few decades of Turner's life, the film clocking in at 150 minutes plays out like a mini-series of episodes of Turners life, done with great focus and insight. Some of the greatest scenes involve an encounter with a scientist and philosopher Mary Sommerville (played to perfection by frequent Leigh actress Lesley Manviller), and another great scene involves Turner visiting a prostitute, who uses her as a portrait instead as a routine encounter.
The film also examines the art world, and how it was still a place of a gossip frenzy then as it is now. Eventually Turner finds love with a widowed Hotel owner named Margate (Marion Bailey) the woman he spends his final years with. The film generates a great amount of subtle and well earned pathos here.
Cinematography here by Leigh's frequent collaborator Dick Pope here is ravishing. Pope just received an Oscar nomination here, and I agree it's one of the most beautifully shot films of the year. Mike Leigh an a recent interview claimed it was the most beautiful looking film of his career, and it's his first film to be shot in digital, rather than on 35mm film. This only carries weight in the film vs. digital debate that it doesn't matter so much on the format you shoot, but what matters is framing, lighting, and shot composition.
Pope's lush cinematography and Leigh's visual style offers some of the most extravagant imagery of the year, most involve beautiful landscapes, sunsets, and art galleries. Every shot here could be put up in a museum or art gallery. Overall Mike Liegh doesn't quite reinvent the biopic here as I hope, the last 30 mins or so are sluggish and result in repetition like a regular biopic, however what is unique in Leigh's approach here is that he approaches his filmmaking in "Mr. Turner" almost like a painter, and it captures how J.M.W. Turner saw the magnificent beauty around him. "Mr. Tuner" is certainly one of the most ravishing and memorable films of 2014
Rating ***1/2 out of ****