“He could be uncouth, gruff, blustery, even crude, treating people badly and denying his children,” writes Kenneth Turan, dispatching back to the Los Angeles Times from Cannes. “Yet he painted some of the most sublime works ever created, and it is that contrast that made the celebrated 19th century British artist J.M.W. Turner a man Mike Leigh has wanted to make a film about for close to 20 years. ‘I always thought Turner was really extraordinary, he anticipates 20th century art and certainly the Impressionists,’ the director says, relaxing at a garden table in what has to be one of the few quiet spots in this hectic town. ‘Plus it just seemed to me that this tension between the personal, this eccentric, obsessive individual, and the epic, spiritual stuff he painted, was a natural cinematic subject. It was my good fortune that no one else had done it.'”
“What a glorious film this is,” declares the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw, “richly and immediately enjoyable, hitting its satisfying stride straight away. It’s funny and visually immaculate; it combines domestic intimacy with an epic sweep and has a lyrical, mysterious quality that perfumes every scene, whether tragic or comic…. In the past, I and others have commented that Leigh’s dialogue in his contemporary movies has an exaggerated, vaudevillian, neo-Dickensian quality. Now he has actually made a Dickensian movie—accompanied, perhaps, by a shrewdly distanced critical sensibility with something of Peter Ackroyd.”
Writing for Screen Daily, Jonathan Romney agrees that it’s “as successful in its tiny details as it is in its epic amplitude: Mr. Turner works at once as a warts-and-all portrait of the painter and his circle, and as a large-scale evocation of Victorian England. The film brings its period so energetically alive that the viewer comes to inhabit Turner’s age as intimately as we’ve inhabited the everyday Britain of Leigh’s contemporary films.”
“Timothy Spall—a veteran of Leigh’s films—plays this eccentric, determined London bohemian like a bronchial, cantankerous, randy old toad with backache,” writes Time Out‘s Dave Calhoun. “He grunts and grimaces and gropes his way through life. He talks like a market trader after a crash course in the classics. Leigh, meanwhile, explores Turner’s life unburdened by any sense of purpose other than an intense, contagious fascination with this man, his work, his times and, increasingly, the inevitable, slow, irresistible trudge towards death.”
“Joseph Mallord William is a sore thumb from the opening scene, where he’s sketching a windmill somewhere in rural Holland, poised like a pot-bellied stork among the rushes.” The Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin: “The scene tells you everything you need to know about the man and the places he feels happiest: in short, it’s landscape as portrait, and Turner would have smiled at that. Leigh has come to Cannes with this supremely enjoyable biopic of the English artist known as ‘the painter of light’—someone whose canvases, which reveled in the possibilities of color and movement, could almost be early forerunners of cinema.”
“Leigh’s storytelling style here is deliberately episodic,” suggests Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent. “He follows Turner (1775-1851) in the final 25 or so years of his life as the artist paints in his studio, roams around seaside towns, gropes his housekeeper, courts a seaside landlady, deals reluctantly with family matters and consorts with fellow members of the Royal Academy…. The paradox is that such an ordinary seeming man is responsible for such visionary art.”
“Similar to 1999’s Topsy-Turvy, Leigh is interested in warts and all, the spit and filth, rag-and-bone shop nature of the creation of art,” notes John Bleasdale at CineVue. “Mr. Turner is moreover a rediscovery of the English artist; down to earth, suspicious of theory, equipped with a keen eye for profitability and a direct relationship with the landscape he’s come from. Mr. Leigh has done him proud.”
Leigh “has managed to conjure largely uneventful if scrupulously well-researched data into a luminous and moving film,” writes Leslie Felperin for the Hollywood Reporter. “Anchored by a masterful performance by Timothy Spall in a role he was born to play, and gilded by career-best effort from DoP Dick Pope, working for the first time on digital for Leigh to bridge the gap between the painting and cinematography, Mr. Turner manages to illuminate that nexus between biography and art with elegant understatement.”
“It’s Mike Leigh’s masterwork and Sony is the right home for it,” argues Anne Thompson, introducing her interview with SPC co-president Tom Bernard.
Updates: “To say that two thirds of Timothy Spall’s grimacing, lurching lead performance is made up of nonverbal noises may actually be understating the matter,” suggests Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan. “This movie has more grunts in it than most hip-hop albums. ‘I think the grunting grew in this organically out of this incredible, instinctive, and emotional man who had a zillion things to say but never said it,’ Spall explained later at the film’s press conference. ‘So he captured it all in an imploded grunt … He’s got this burning thing inside him, so rather than say it, it’s just ungh, ungh.’ But what if you don’t speak ungh?” Buchanan offers a “grunting glossary to Mr. Turner.”
For Oliver Lyttelton, writing at the Playlist, “Mr. Turner, though not without flaws, is something of a twilight culmination of Leigh’s work, and very much one in which the filmmaker turns his lens on himself, as is so often the case when directors make movies about artists.”
“Despite the fact-based characters, Mr. Turner was developed through the same improvisational workshop process as all of Leigh’s films,” notes Variety‘s Scott Foundas, “and the results have same acutely researched and lived-in feel. That’s especially true of Spall, who so fully internalizes Turner that he doesn’t seem to be playing the part as much as channeling it. With his great squashed-in face, Spall shows you every flicker of thought that flashes across Turner’s mind, and every wince of pain that courses through his wearying body. He conveys the sense of a man driven by a talent and passion even he doesn’t fully understand—a raging, difficult, gruntingly inarticulate soul who finds in pictures the clarity of expression that otherwise elude him.”
Guy Lodge at In Contention: “At 150 unhurried minutes, [Mr. Turner is] actually shorter than Topsy-Turvy, but feels more muscular—a sober affair, though often a mournfully funny one. And while the films cover some common thematic ground—the artist’s insecurity, the tension between pleasing oneself and an audience—Mr. Turner’s passions and neuroses feel more peculiar to Leigh and his own work. It’s tempting, even, to view the film as biopic-as-self-portrait, revealing shades of one life through another.”
Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn: “At one point, discussing the process of colorization with a colleague, Turner observes that ‘the sublime and the harmonious are contradictory.’ It’s a lesson that Mr. Turner takes to heart in every scene.”
Fabien Lemercier talks with Leigh for Cineuropa, where Domenico La Porta writes in his review that “by presenting the man—sometimes lecherous, at other times esoteric or not far from an enthusiastic madness known only to artists—we are granted the keys to his work and to a whole era.”
“What Mr. Turner shares with both Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake is Leigh’s fascination with the routine details of life in past decades/centuries,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve. “The effort of a fellow artist (Martin Savage, who played vain lead actor George Grossmith in Topsy-Turvy) to obtain, and then marginally repay, a loan from the well-to-do Turner gets as much attention as any artistic endeavors… Near the end of the film, Turner has a daguerreotype taken, asking endless questions of the photographer and concluding, after hearing the replies, ‘I think I’m finished.’ The existence of this exacting yet lyrical film—and of cinema itself, for that matter, with its blend of realism and abstraction—demonstrates how right and how wrong he was, at the same time.”
Leigh “doesn’t reveal character through action, but through slips of backstory folded into his interactions,” writes Peter Labuza at the Film Stage. “Turner’s dialogues with his similarly boorish father (Paul Jesson), his maid (Dorothy Atkinson) who gives him unrequited love without understanding his work, and the various, seemingly random characters he encounters in his life are packed with tidbits that bring this strange artist to life, a fellow who finds solace better in those who know him outside of his work.”
“Also crucial to any artist biopic is its cinematography,” writes Isobel Stevens for Sight & Sound. “Turner is convincingly shown as a compulsive painter (the film is bookended with such scenes), but how to approach a subject already associated with such a distinctive visual aesthetic? Most directors opt to echo their subjects’ style—Derek Jarman mimicking Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro, Peter Greenaway recreating Rembrandt’s tableaux, John Huston emulating Toulouse-Lautrec’s hues with filters and so on. Leigh follows suit, paying close attention to the patina of light while also faithfully recreating a selection of Turner’s famous sun- and moon-lit landscapes and lesser-known interiors.”
The beauty in Leigh’s films has always been “private and inconspicuous,” writes Michał Oleszczyk at RogerEbert.com, “more Yasuijiro Ozu and Jan Vermeer than David Lean and John Constable. Here, it’s as if all that simmering passion for beauty has finally exploded and spilled out in a movie so gorgeous, I actually gasped at times at the beauty of its imagery.” The Competition has “kicked off with a movie so original, adventurous and beautiful; we will all be talking about it in the years to come.”
“Leigh’s approach to the evocation of the Georgian/early Victorian era, which was simultaneously the period of the early Industrial Revolution, is unrivaled,” argues Barbara Scharres, also at RogerEbert.com. “As someone who has made an occasional hobby of studying the industrialization of the era, I was blown away by the staggering authenticity. The interiors, paintings, costumes, textiles, china, pottery, glassware, ceramic ornaments, machinery and devices are all fully integrated into the whole of the vision just as Leigh’s characters. His recreation of the gallery of the Royal Academy with gilt-framed paintings mounted edge-to-edge, wall-to-wall and ceiling-to-ceiling is a marvel.”
Updates, 5/16: Richard Corliss notes that his fellow critic at Time, the late Robert Hughes, called Turner “‘the most profound romantic artist in 19th century Europe.’ In ‘the Beethoven-like grandeur of the last landscapes,’ Hughes wrote in 1974, ‘the world of detail and substance has been fully absorbed into the vibration of light, pure self-delighting energy manifesting itself.’ Who put this elemental fury and rapture on canvas? Who was this pathfinder of the sea and sky—’a far more ‘modern’ artist,’ Hughes insisted, ‘than any of the French Impressionists’ a half-century later? He was neither starving artist nor slumming aristocrat. A poor boy, self-educated, Turner sold paintings from his early teens; he received the esteem of most critics, the Royal Academy and lordly patrons until his death at 76…. Many reviewers at Cannes have cheered the movie as the festival’s first highlight and a worthy contender for the top-prize Palme d’Or. We’re not quite there. We revere Turner more than Mr. Turner—a stark film, gorgeously photographed (digitally) by Bill Pope, but cold and hard on the surface and in what we detect is its heart.”
“Spall has always been a terrific actor, but this is the performance of his career,” writes the Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek. “He’s wholly without vanity: As Turner, he has a chin that doesn’t know where his neck begins; he carries his somewhat portly frame like he’s more preoccupied with light than with grace of movement. This Mr. Turner is no one we’d go out of our way to know; he may be historically significant, but he’s anti-charismatic, a walking negative charge. And yet somehow, we come to love a man we don’t even like.”
“Leigh hasn’t so much transcended the limitations of the biopic as handsomely dressed them up,” writes A.A. Dowd at the AV Club. “He’s made a very straightforward account of his subject’s experiences, never quite managing a perspective on the events depicted…. Mr. Turner is a fine film—and my favorite one of the festival so far, no question—but I’m struggling to see the masterpiece some of my fellow critics have announced. As artist portraits go, it has nothing on Peter Watkins’s radical, unconventional Edvard Munch, which was truly made in the spirit of its subject.”
“There is so much labour on the screen,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies, “like Leigh knew that he might only have a single shot at this one, and so put his all into every frame, every edit, every spoken syllable.”
Update, 5/17: Notebook editor Daniel Kasman: “The flaccidity of the expansive slice of life by British master director Mike Leigh of British master painter J.M.W. Turner is both livened and dead-weighted by so much ham on screen it achieves something near a lowbrow kinship to the subtle extravagances of Turner’s grandiose visions of light.”
Updates, 5/18: “Not content with mere portraiture, Leigh crowds his canvas with a dense array of period-specific subject matter from experiments in natural philosophy (the magnetic effects of light and color) to infighting among the ranks of the National Academy,” writes Budd Wilkins at the House Next Door. “Leigh also explores Turner’s determination to keep up with the onslaught of technological advances, especially those twin talismans of the era: the railroad and the daguerreotype. Just as steam power put paid to the sailing vessels of Nelson’s army that had been celebrated in many a Turner canvas, the camera’s seemingly objective ensnarement of natural phenomena puts entire schools of naturalistic painting in jeopardy…. But Leigh isn’t so much interested in artist as martyr as he is in the artist as self-contained multitude, containing all the foibles and paradoxes of his age. Mr. Turner, as it titles suggests, is a portrait of the artist as everyman.”
“Leigh and his regular cinematographer, Dick Pope, and the inspired production designers are up to more than an imitation of painting,” writes Wesley Morris at Grantland. “It’s not setting a camera down for a long take or re-creating a particular painting. It’s bringing cinema as close to painting as it’s come since the silent era.”
Viewing (7’28”). The Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard talks with Leigh, Spall and Marion Bailey.
Updates, 5/21: “Leigh is rude to critics—unforgivably rude—by pillorying poor John Ruskin,” writes Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times. “The aesthete and Turner champion becomes a whinnying, grandiloquent booby: ‘I find myself marvelling at my own depth of perception.’ Never mind. Elsewhere this is a blazingly imagined drama of creativity, with Spall’s genius at bay and at play in an England that gives him both philistine human enemies to mock his art and natural marvels (cliffs, seas, sunsets) to inspire and mirror them.”
“Mr. Turner may be Leigh’s most technically accomplished film to date, but one unfortunately sapped of lasting effect by its antihero’s heaving disposition,” writes Jordan Cronk at Reverse Shot.
Update, 5/24: “I could smell this movie,” writes Jordan Hoffman for Vanity Fair. “The dust particles in the parlor, the beetles caught in muslin, the hair springing from the cheek of a butchered pig. Turner was renown as a master of light; its beams, shafts, prisms and reflections are his constant companion. In this pre-Edison-set film, the sun is Spall’s main co-star. From the first gorgeous frame of a Dutch windmill, Leigh and his cinematographer Dick Pope seem unfazed by the challenges of telling a visual story about a great visualist.”
Update, 5/26: “The biggest complaint I’ve heard about Mr. Turner is Leigh’s refusal to go the art history route,” writes Filmmaker editor Scott Macaulay. “‘Why was Turner’s work more celebrated than that of his contemporaries,’ one colleague asked. My answer: Google it. Leigh, Spall and Pope give us something more valuable: an interpretation of an artist that rings emotionally true even as it speaks to a larger ideas of how vision and representation are mediated through time.”
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