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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Leigh-Turner Overdrive
by Donald Levit

Of his Mr. Turner director-writer Mike Leigh remarked right away that it was about time someone had done a film about J.M.W. Turner. At that New York Film Festival press session, cinematographer Dick Pope indicated care taken for location, light and color in scenes that mirror the sketches, oils and watercolors but added that those hand-eye arts embrace emotion, passion and poetry beyond camera capabilities.

Not biopic, and based on research into characters and period without being documentary, the two-and-a-half-hours-minus-one-minute is too well done to deserve a left-handed “labor of love.” It at times looks as though the camera is “seeing” through the subject’s eyes. That artist (Leigh regular Timothy Spall) is magisterially unaware of social niceties, paternal obligations -- do not color him father -- women’s (or anyone’s) rights, and in fact human ties at all except towards his ex-barber father William, Sr. (Paul Jesson).

The story, however, is not concerned with genius vs. humanity or humility. Beyond tears at Daddy’s bedside after agreement with the dying man on what a witch mother had been, there is no background or insight into what made the man. The very “Mr.” of the title, instead of only the surname, distances him.

Grunts and snorts are the sole odd endearing traits of this highly successful middle-aged painter and mixed terror and darling of the Royal Academy. Defended by a pompous elfin young John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), he ignores the political, royal and social waters that swirl. Unexpected acts do pop up, like the refusal of £100,000 for his oeuvre of 19,000 works so that, instead, it can be bequeathed gratis to the nation, or his gruff generosity with a whiney indigent Benjamin Robert Haydon, (Martin Savage) who was actually more successful than this film portrait indicates.

As artist, Turner has already made the transition from romantic landscapes to the vortices of color vision and interpretation that anticipate twentieth century theory and practice. As a man, obsessed with his work and experimenting with the perception and effect of light and space, he is divorced from other people and is particularly appalling in relationships with defenseless women. One brief exception is all-business natural philosopher scientist Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville), herself concerned with prismatic division and projection of light. Turner is scary in rental of young prostitute Eliza (Kate O’Flynn) for sketching, and cold and detested by Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), mother of their two daughters who also hate him. He is repulsive in near daily contact with adoring, self-effacing, feeble and skin-diseased housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), a niece of Sarah’s whom he uses from time to time for sexual gratification that is nothing short of rape.

Aside from Brando’s equating “the lure of celebrity” with an aphrodisiac, it is a mystery that a woman would be attracted to such a sloppy lout as this self-styled “gargoyle.” On quick sketching runs to Margate port, he registers as Mr. Mallard at a guest house run by Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey) and her ex-slave ship’s carpenter husband (Karl Johnson). Mr. B. may perhaps have inspired the unmentioned 1840 oil, The Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) and in any case conveniently dies, leaving the garrulous widow to become a blessing to the painter’s later years.

Cinematically careless of his health -- though in fact he lived to seventy-six -- to the point of having himself lashed to a mast to observe firsthand a snowstorm at sea, the driven man seems to reach relatively calm waters with this caring ego-bolstering woman, while equally besotted Hannah is left out in the cold.

Slow period piece Mr. Turner is an actors’, filmmaker’s, photographer’s, and costume and set designers’ delight. Its nineteenth-century Victorian accents a stumbling block for Americans, it may prove of limited interest to general audiences, especially the young who drive ticket sales.

(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated “R” for some sexual content.)

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