Movie Review: “Mr. Turner” Is A Slow-Moving But Engaging Drama


Review by James McDonald

An exploration of the last quarter century of the great, if eccentric, British painter J.M.W. Turner’s life.

“Mr. Turner” tells the story of artist J.M.W. Turner, an English Romantic landscape painter, water-colorist, and printmaker. He was considered controversial during his time but also known as “the painter of light” and his work is regarded as a Romantic preface to Impressionism. Director Mike Leigh constructs a moving and at times, deeply affecting movie that concentrates on the last 25 years of Turner’s life, from his early 50’s up to the time of his death at age 76. While the movie traverses through the last quarter century of his life, not very much happens but watching Timothy Spall encompass Turner’s mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, more than makes up for the movie’s occasional leisurely pace. When we are first introduced to Turner, he lives with his father William (Paul Jesson) and housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson).

Turner has a painting room and his father works with him as his studio assistant and while their housekeeper secretly loves Turner, he is never aware of it but has no qualms whatsoever about having sex with her when the mood engulfs him. In 1829, Turner’s father passes away and it has such a profound effect on him, that he is prone to bouts of depression and to get away from the city, he often travels to Cheyne Walk in Chelsea to get inspiration for his paintings and while there, he meets Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), a widow with whom he falls for and they end up getting married and spending the rest of their lives together until his death in 1851. Director Mike Leigh has made a career writing and directing absorbing dramas, such as “Life is Sweet”, “Secrets & Lies” and “Topsy-Turvy” and has an uncanny ability for creating authentic and believable characters.

Even when nothing much is happening, story-wise, his actors always have the adroitness and capability to keep you glued to your screen to see what is going to happen next. Timothy Spall is known to a generation of moviegoers as Peter Pettigrew/Wormtail in the “Harry Potter” movies and even in those popcorn-fueled stories, he was always watchable as the two-faced Pettigrew and seemed to play his character with relish. Here, he is just as watchable, if not more, as the eccentric J.M.W. Turner, a man whose life encompasses only painting and occasional intimacy, whenever the mood suits him. At two and a half hours, the movie really overstays its welcome but with superb performances from the entire cast and proficient direction by Mike Leigh, it is most definitely worth a look.

In theaters now


James McDonald
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