Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes.

Grade:  B

Director:  Mike Leigh

Screenwriter:  Mike Leigh

Cast:  Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Joshua McGuire

Screened at:  Sony, NYC, 11/19/14

Opens:  December 10. 2014

If you take a survey course in History of Art—which every liberal arts college should require—you’ll inevitably come across the big guys: Rembrandt, Bruegel the Elder, Titian, Michelangelo, Goya—but the folks from the Continent are not the only greats of their field.  Britain is right to brag about J.M.W. Turner, who is important not only because of the quality of his work but because he advanced the field, his paintings forming a bridge between the Romantic Age of the early19th Century and the Impressionists that followed.  He also splashed watercolors rather than oil across most of his canvasses, had a thing about reproducing light, and gloried in landscapes rather than portraits.  Like other major artists, he is loved by some, reviled by others (Queen Victoria was of the latter group).

In giving us his impression of the man—which stands to reason given Turner’s own use of impressionism—Mike Leigh, well known even on our shores for “Vera Drake” (about the controversial abortionist) and “Topsy Turvy” (how Gilbert and Sullivan revived their rep by knocking out “The Mikado”)—Leigh avoids the conventional biopic in favor of picking up highlights from Turner’s life and even then, dealing only with his final twenty-five years.

Whatever you think of the movie—and it will have some problems in the U.S. because some of the British dialogue is difficult to hear clearly—there is little question that it will send Timothy Spall into the forefront of guilds who vote awards for Best Actor.  Spall, who did a terrific job as England’s last executioner in “Pierrepont,” manages all the pig-like grunts of the artist, whose inarticulateness may have prodded him to express himself in painting.  Even were the picture to be without dialogue, you could tell what Spall’s character is thinking at any moment by the expressions on his face—his curmudgeon personality coming across perfectly.

Called Billy by his beloved father (Paul Jesson), William Turner adored his old man, falling into a depression when his dad died at the age of 83 after living with Billy for the past 30 years.  He takes up with a widow, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), a seaside landlady, is harassed by an ex-girlfriend, Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), and occasionally has quick sex with Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), his housekeeper for the last 40 years who loves him.

Many scenes show him in the company of aristocrats who look over his works, one man even offering him 100,000 poundsterlings if he would sell all the paintings in one exhibit.  Turner refuses, preferring to turn his work over to the British nation to be seen by hordes of fellow citizens.

When Turner visits a brothel, he uses a 22-year-old woman to pose for a sketch.  He even ties himself to the mast of a ship in bad weather to paint a snowstorm.

Timothy Spall’s own riveting performance is matched by that of Dorothy Atkinson as his housekeeper, a woman whose face is increasingly scarred by psoriasis and who looks upon the scenes sadly, walks slowly and uneasily, all the while knowing that she could never command anything resembling equality with the man she loves.

Aside from being rich in performances, “Mr. Turner,” which exposes the movie audience with only a few of his canvasses preferring to paint a picture of the times, is a film to respect more than to love.  It is overlong at two and one-half hours, is too episodic for easy coherence, and generally adheres to much a stiff, Masterworks Theater format.

Rated R.  149 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-

Acting – A-

Technical – B

Overall – B


By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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