[Screen It]


(2014) (Timothy Spall, Marion Bailey) (R)

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Drama: A curmudgeonly 19th century painter finds inspiration in various places, all while having issues dealing with various people in his life.
It's the 1800s and Joseph Mallord William Turner (TIMOTHY SPALL) is a renowned painter in high society circles, specializing in landscape works. His assistant is his elderly father, William (PAUL JESSON), and they're both tended to by Turner's long-standing and long-suffering housekeeper, Hannah Danby (DOROTHY ATKINSON), who he occasionally uses for his sexual gratification. But he has no intention of getting romantically involved with her, a stance he also applies to her aunt, Sarah Danby (RUTH SHEEN), with whom he fathered two daughters, Evelina (SANDY FOSTER) and Georgiana (AMY DAWSON), now both young women.

When not dealing with his contemporaries, including the unhappy Benjamin Haydon (MARTIN SAVAGE) who borrows money from him to get by, as well as those who love his art, including John Ruskin (JOSHUA McGUIRE), Turner searches for inspiration for his next works. He ends up traveling to the seaside town of Margate where he rents a room from Sophia Booth (MARION BAILEY) and her husband.

With time passing by, she ends up widowed, eventually resulting in her and Turner entering into something of a romantic relationship. That's all while he must contend with those in the art world starting to turn on him and his works.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown

And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin'

Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'

Bob Dylan - The Times They Are A-changin'

While Dylan was singing about the social changes of the 1960s, his message about historical transformation could easily apply to any number of other eras and areas, be that in terms of societal norms, technology of what have you. That's part of the theme of "Mr. Turner," a lavish look at the later years of Joseph Mallord William Turner.

If that name doesn't ring a bell, his reaction and point upon hearing that his first ever photograph experience was finished -- "I fear I am too" -- has only been proven. I have no idea if the real man said that, but it's part of writer/director Mike Leigh's look at the British painter, resident curmudgeon, and apparent bachelor womanizer who was well-known in high society of the early to mid 19th century.

While art historians might instantly recognize the man's name and his works (most of the landscape variety), both have been lost to time for nearly everyone else, unlike the likes of van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, Picasso and so on. As played by Timothy Spall (likely best known for playing Wormtail in various "Harry Potter" films) as something of a combination of Ebenezer Scrooge, Karl Childers (think of Billy Bob Thornton's non-verbal guttural responses in "Sling Blade") and most any talented but socially maladroit artist, the painter sees the changes coming his way, including steam ships, railroads and yes, the camera that will forever change the public's view of art.

He doesn't like any of them, although they provide plenty of fodder for some of his works, and Leigh ("Vera Drake," "Secrets & Lies") and cinematographer Dick Pope have shot this film to look like a series of lushly appointed landscape paintings. You'd be hard pressed to find a prettier looking movie from 2014, and the costume designs and production design are top-notch across the board.

Despite all of that, unfortunately it's sort of inert and boring, especially as clocking in at 150 or so minutes in run-time. I'm not familiar with how much historical information there is about Turner's personal life, but beyond throwing in a number of sexual partners, other painters of the era, and the aforementioned significant changes surrounding the man and his contemporaries, neither Leigh or Spall let us get deep enough into the man and what made him tick to make us care.

For instance, we learn that he has two adult daughters by a woman (Ruth Sheen) who isn't pleased that he doesn't seem to care about any of them. There's also the added twist that the woman is the aunt to his long-standing housekeeper who's occasionally the subject of his sexual gratification, but he's blind to her obvious affection and longing for him, or perhaps is simply ignoring that or doesn't care. We never know, thus leaving the impression that he's just a jerk.

Then again, he does seem to develop some degree of affection toward a widow (Marion Bailey) and has a good relationship with his elderly father (Paul Jesson) who serves as his assistant in the first half of the film. Accordingly, he doesn't seem to be a complete social monster, but despite all of that, I never felt that this "painting" of him, if you will, delved much below the superficial behavior. And Spall's performance, while good, nearly enters into caricature mode, what with all of the responsive grunts and groans that eventually begin piling up a bit too deeply, at least for my taste.

In one scene in the film, a flamboyant young man (Joshua McGuire) goes on and on about the various meanings depicted in one of Turner's maritime landscapes, all while the painter all but rolls his eyes at the man's puffery and grandiose insight. I imagine some viewers and especially critics will likely do the same in describing and defending the film. While there's interesting material here along with some intriguing thematic elements, it's really not much more than a pretty painting. Scratch the surface and you'll find there's not much below the appealing visuals. "Mr. Turner" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 30, 2014 / Posted January 2, 2015

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