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Film Review

Mr. Turner

Mike Leigh, an English writer and director, has produced an extraordinary number of high quality stage and television plays and films. He initially wrote plays then shifted to television. In the 1980's he decided to explore film. His earlier films often focused on the working class and the ordinary person, and their discontents, while some of his later films look back to the 19th and early 20th Century. He typically develops very complex stories and characters, often with great power, and explores social issues. His stories can be stark, yet many of his films have comedic touches, as if to soften unhappiness. His better known films include Secrets & Lies (1996),Topsy-Turvy (1999), Vera Drake (2004), and Happy-Go-Lucky (2008). Much of his work has an anti-Masterpiece Theater aspect in its regard for the marginalized and the disaffected.

One of the greatest, if not the greatest, English painter of the 19th Century was JMW Turner, whose atmospheric land and seascapes are illustrative of the Romantic Era at its height, and many art historians see him as the vanguard of Impressionism. He has often been called "the painter of light". His paintings are highly distinctive with light effects and clouds always being dominant elements. Like many 19th C painters, he began with a tight very controlled brush, with great detail and accuracy, and later began to paint in a much looser, impressionistic fashion. At the end of his career, his paintings were largely studies of light, almost total abstraction. Turner was very prolific, and intended that most of his work would be a gift to the British nation. Ultimately, the British government, after much stalling, built a separate gallery (at the National Gallery) for his gift. Most of his paintings are in London but with notable exceptions in major museums. Our own Legion of Honor is hosting an exhibit of late Turners, organized by the Tate, and scheduled to open this June.

Leigh opens Mr. Turner with a lovely view of a windmill in morning haze, as two rural Dutch women walk by. The camera then pans up and we see the silhouette of a top hatted man, sketch book in hand. Then Turner returns to his brick townhouse, throws his hat and bundle down, says a few gruff words to his housekeeper, and begins to paint. His hands fly across the paper in a near frenzy, as he begins a watercolor. Leigh brings Turner into focus in an episodic way, revealing an immensely complicated and contradictory person, with his artistic vision a gift from God. We see Turner as sometimes kindly, but often gruff and uncaring. He snubs his two daughters from an early common law marriage, yet lends a whining petulant artist 50 pounds. His housekeeper is faithful and clearly loves him, but he hardly notices her, except for one scene that reveals his lustful side. He is loving toward his father, who lives with him and does many of his artistic tasks, from buying pigment and canvas to preparing colors to greeting visitors. His biographers state that the death of his father had a lasting impact on him but that isn't evident in the film. There is a brief dialogue in the film that explains that his mother was a "lunatic" and committed to an institution, where she remained to her death. His sister died when he was very young, and Turner seems to have been a lonely person, even when surrounded by admirers. As he aged he became even more eccentric and fearful that he would be forgotten.

Turner seems never to be without his sketchbook. The outdoor scenes that he observes and sketches are gorgeous, and really a vital character in this essentially one character film. In a particularly ravishing scene, as he is looking at the now famous lakes in the Highlands, a file of semi wild horses walk by him. He seems to go everywhere in search of vision, including being tied to a mast to witness a storm at sea (according to Leigh). Another scene is equally beautiful but more symbolic: a famous Royal Navy warship, the Temeraire, is being towed by an early steam tug to be broken up for scrap. This was a ship that figured prominently at Trafalgar, saving Nelson's flag ship and playing a key part in the British victory. It served for many years after and became a symbol of British naval strength. Turner captured the tow scene on canvas, which became the best known and loved of all of his paintings. And here we see Turner and a few friends watching the scene, with one suggesting it would make a great painting. Which it certainly did; a symbol of the beginning of the end of sail. Leigh's scene brought tears to my eyes. Coincidentally, this painting is shown in Wiseman's National Gallery. And this is only one of many gorgeous scenes. In another fascinating scene, Turner walks into a newly fashionable Daguerreotype studio of a now historically important photographer, curious about the process, and has his picture taken. Mr. Turner is so rich visually (and otherwise) that it could be equally understood and enjoyed as a silent film.

Then there are the performances, which are uniformly wonderful. Even the most minor characters are developed and well played, but Timothy Spall's depiction of Turner is magnificent and clearly headed for an Oscar. His Turner almost seems like a throwback to the ice age, a grunting, snorting creature that speaks little, and with facial expressions that say everything. A quick slightly raised upper lip to express his contempt or a brief tightening of his lips as his father is dying. Spall expresses the complexity of the man is a way rarely seen on screen. Cinematography just doesn't get better than this, whether indoor or outdoor shots. The soundtrack is very sympathetic: simple tones rather than compositions. Like Wiseman's National Gallery (a wonderful pairing), Mike Leigh has produced a masterpiece about a master. Mr. Turner is beautiful, powerful and memorable. In a season of good films, this is a giant. Give yourself a gift and see it on the big screen. Playing time: 150 minutes. Screening at the Kabuki and the Embarcadero, but not yet elsewhere in the Bay Area. Happy New Year all.

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