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Mr. Turner – HIFF Film Review

    By Mark Brians. November 16, 2014 - 10:29 pm


Roger Ebert once stated that, “no good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” With a running time that rivals installments of The Lord of the Rings it seems a daunting task to artfully capture an audience’s attention with long wide shots of the English countryside and cockney dialogue. The film however, is riveting in its colorful and careful brilliance.

Director Mike Leigh does an amazing job at capturing the full breadth of conflict, beauty and turmoil surrounding the life of British painter J.M.W. Turner, a highly celebrated artist whom many scholars consider to be the Colossus between English Romanticism and the more abstract forms of painting of modernity and post-modernity.

The film follows his life after his rise to fame as a painter as he deals with death, love, legacy and other humans. The film centers on the interplay of oppositional forces, juxtaposing the sadness and boorish selfishness that plagued Mr. Turner’s personal life with the light and fortuity of his artistic work. This tension rises to a crescendo in a scene where he lies in a sick bed as a doctor marvels that the body that produced such magnificent works of art could be kept in such a deplorable condition.

Timothy Spall leads the cast with particular poignancy in his role as Mr. Turner. His virtuoso performance earned him the best actor award at the Cannes International Film Festival and set a high bar which the rest of the cast did not fail to meet. The role of Hannah Danby, as played by Dorothy Atkinson, was executed with such quiet power and nuanced tragedy that one was caught unawares by the irreconcilable sadness of her solitary performance in the last scene of the film.

Mike Leigh makes beautiful films. They may rarely make it into the gaze of the popular American public, but they are holistic masterpieces.

Mr. Turner is no exception. The cinematography was gripping, elevating the cast’s performance that much more. Mike leigh shows his deft hand in being able to capture the lovely vastness of empty swaths of land and being able, moments later, to pull-in tight and capture the heavy furrows that trace the artist’s brow.

Unlike some of Leigh’s other films, Mr. Turner does not leave you with a happy feeling. It strikes you with majesty, bruises you with scenes of melancholy, and invites you into the struggle of lives woven together. It exemplifies that other line from Ebert about films being machines for empathy. Mr. Turner invites us into the full pallet of human emotion and leaves us holding our stomachs as if we’d been sucker-punched by an inexpressible longing for which we do not have words, only images cast upon a once-white-canvas.

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