Several months ago, I took myself to the Tate Britain to see wonderful paintings by British artists. Something that struck me was an entire wing in the museum was dedicated to J. M. W. Turner and his magnificent paintings. There was something ethereal and striking about these images. But what struck me was the quantity. It was room after room of these gorgeous sea and landscapes.
So, when Mr. Turner premiered in London, I was thrilled to check it out and learn more about the man behind the brush.
Well, I would have loved to have learned more about the man, but after two and a half hours, I feel like I have more questions than answers. My first question is why is this film getting such rave reviews?
The cinematography is unarguably astounding. Every single shot in this film is absolutely gorgeous. Each frame could be a painting in itself much to the credit of cinematographer, Dick Pope. And I truly believe the film would have been better if there was no sound–just moving pictures. Unfortunately, films are no longer made like that, and I had to endure hours of unintelligible speech and confusing narrative.
Timothy Spall was picturesque as Mr. Turner, but his portrayal was not a far cry from Billy Bob Thorton’s Sling Blade character with the frequent grunting and marble-chewing speech. I strained my ears to hear every word but still managed to get a fraction of what was said. Thankfully, the pictures told most of the story.
But my other observation for this film was the lack of real story. I felt like each scene didn’t connect. It was a film of vignettes rather than a fluid, continuous tale of the man. One scene in particular features a woman friend of Mr. Turner’s coming to visit him in his studio. She has come equipped with a prism and needle. She then shows him that the ultra-violet light cast on a canvas and needle have actually magnetized the needle.
What was the purpose of this scene? It never comes back. We never see the woman again. And we never see Mr. Turner use a needle, purple, or a prism. So, why did I just watch five minutes of prism action? Probably just to have the woman say, “You’re a man of great vision, Mr. Turner.” What happened to the adage of “show, don’t tell”?
This was throughout the film. In another scene, Mr. Turner would be upset at his ex-wife and family, and then later say he didn’t have any children. I get that he didn’t want to acknowledge them, but why? It’s never explained. Also, it’s never explained why he’s a painter, why he paints ships and the ocean, or where this man has even come from. His mannerisms suggest he grew up as a poor man but managed to make a good living as a painter turning him into one of the elite. Is there nothing on that subject that would be interesting?
What I did take away from this film was that Mr. Turner was very proud of his work. So much so, he eventually refused payment for his paintings because he felt that the British nation would benefit more from them if they were exhibited for free. I did manage to catch the word “gratis” despite him screeching it through clenched teeth. I also took away that he was a very sick man toward the end of his life and eventually died. I’m pretty sure the movie would have a different angle, of course, if this man was still alive, so no one give me grief for the spoiler, please.
I wish I had more positive things to say about this film as it was striking and beautiful. After doing some research on my own about the man, I have found out is that he actually grew up not far from where I live now in Brentford with an uncle after “a fit of illness” took over his family (I’m assuming that’s his mother), and it was during this time he began to paint. As he continued to paint, he began to sell a painting here and there from his father’s barber shop. He then studied art in school and was determined to become a professional painter studying the classics and turning out works to the Royal Academy in 1790 at the age of 15.
According to Wikipedia, he did have two daughters but no official wife, despite what the film portrayed. In the film, he supposedly had two wives (at different times), a mistress, two daughters and a grandchild.
I do not want to discredit Timothy Spall (who did take best actor at Cannes for the film) or the incredible work of the cinematographer, but I wholly feel like this film left quite a bit to be desired. Nonetheless, this should not be a criticism on the actual Mr. Turner who in fact is a brilliant artist who did have great vision. I just wish I knew where this vision had come from.
2 out of 5 stars