Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB. United Kingdom/France/Germany, 2014. Film4, Focus Features International, France 3 Cinema, Lipsync Productions, Thin Man Films, Untitled 13, Xofa Productions. Screenplay by Mike Leigh. Cinematography by Dick Pope. Produced by Georgina Lowe. Music by Gary Yershon. Production Design by Suzie Davies. Costume Design by Jacqueline Durran. Film Editing by Jon Gregory. Academy Awards 2014. Cannes Film Festival 2014. National Board of Review Awards 2014. New York Film Critics Awards 2014. Toronto International Film Festival 2014.
The life and work of J.M.W. Turner are visited in this impressionistic exercise in brilliance by Mike Leigh, here making yet another unforgettably perfect film. It also marks a return to the Victorian era following his masterful Topsy-Turvy, but where that film was much more concerned with a precise recreation of the era, Mr. Turner focuses its efforts less on historical detail and more on the emotional exploration of artist and man. That isn’t to say that the trappings aren’t up to the perfection of his standards, as the production design and costumes are more than effective, rendered across the cinematic canvas by Dick Pope’s rich cinematography whose images exist within the world of Turner’s own mind-blowing paintings, but the weight of the film’s power rests on the relationships explored between the gruff subject (played with mercurial, leonine charisma by Timothy Spall) and his closest loved ones: a father who supported his son’s artistic talents, a maidservant (Dorothy Atkinson, a truly heartbreaking performance) with whom he has a complicated intimacy, and a landlady (Marion Bailey, also superb) who provides him with years of companionship. Turner would be a hard subject given that his career was generally successful (his membership in the Royal Academy, his recognition, in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, by Queen Victoria as an artist of note), but Leigh finds all the right moments of conflict to explore, and then pads it out with details of his interactions with citizens and artists (the scientific experiments with Lesley Manville being a thorough delight) as his life progresses and he gradually declines in health. It’s a warm and wonderful movie that is moving but also fiercely smart, told with a great love of its human figures who are never sentimentalized.