At the risk of sounding incredibly pretentious there is a scene in Mr Turner that reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s remark in The Picture of Dorian Gray that the emotions of people you don’t care about seem ridiculous. At one point in Mike Leigh’s latest, Timothy Spall, playing the famous British artist, bursts into a fit of weeping. The camera lingers on him as he sniffles and sobs over a confused and comically unenthused young prostitute. All I could think was ‘Jesus Christ. Shut the fuck up’.
This film has been given a lot of praise in what seems like a case of the emperor’s new clothes. We’re presented with a portrait of the 19th century painter via a series of incidents rather than any overt plot. This takes two and a half hours and many scenes feel over-long or completely extraneous. This could have been an extremely strong, interesting film were it a lot shorter.
Being fair, there is a lot to admire here. Mike Leigh gets great performances, particularly out of the supporting cast. Many scenes are very funny. It also looks beautiful in places. The choice to not focus so much on his art, but rather shoot scenes that mirror his work and hint at his inspiration is an interesting one. It’s nice as well to be reminded that a lot of art we now think of as chocolate boxy was once seen as outrageously avant garde. It refuses to portray Turner as a wide-eyed dreamer. He’s a grunting, wheezing old man. Painting is something he cares about but the film largely stays away from any impulse to portray him as a tortured artist whose general assholery is made up for by flashes of divine artistic inspiration.
In fact, the portrayal of the man as (in my estimation) an absolute piece of shit is simultaneously the movie’s bravest move and one of its biggest flaws. We see him as an absentee father by choice. We also see him treat his servant, played by Dorothy Atkinson, as something for him to ejaculate into that can conveniently also fetch him stuff. Atkinson gives a great performance here as the simple serving woman who’s relationship with her master-employer is extremely disturbing by modern standards. It’s very brave to show the protagonist with all the vices and prejudices of his time unvarnished. Compared to the hagiography of something like Lincoln this is refreshing stuff. Mike Leigh clearly set out to give a sense of a real, flawed human being. Timothy Spall gives a great performance but at times it’s cartoonish; buried under a mounatin of ticks. He grunts an awful lot.
Despite all the good stuff on display, a biopic is probably a failure if at the end you’re thinking ‘Just die already so we can get this over with’.