Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Mr. Turner

Tough film to fit into a schedule, since it's only at one theater in Metro Boston and (due to its length), plays either fairly early or fairly late. Well worth it, though, even if you're not one who tries to see all the nominated movies, even those down in the technical categories. I'm a little disappointed that Timothy Spall wasn't nominated, although not necessarily surprised - there are big chunks of this movie where he's saying very little, and you've apparently got to be delivering lines or playing someone who can't.

One thing that I didn't ding the movie for (honest!), but which did seem weird was him going out of his way to make a swipe at critics. It's become sort of de rigeur for any film dealing with art and artists, and while I had a good laugh at (I think) Joshua McGuire as a snooty-voice fan talking about what one must do when "weviewing awt", it was a weird detour. Leigh is good enough that it has a point - Turner's response simultaneously shows him as not just an artist who has studied as opposed to a natural talent but having difficulty articulating his knowledge, simply replying that the old master McGuire's John Ruskin has dismissed was "a genius" (maybe true, but a total argument from authority) - but it feels a little bit more like addressing present concerns than the rest of the movie, which is very much in its period.

It's kind of interesting to see how out-of-sorts Turner is throughout the movie, because it can also tend to serve as a bit of a rebuke to those lamenting the distractions of modern life. There are an awful lot of scenes of people entering a room, gathering in a circle, and instead of engaging in the great conversations we always imagine people of bygone eras having, everyone is either choked by formality and class or just not getting at any deeper ideas than their modern equivalents would. They may use more vocabulary - and it's great fun to watch even the lower classes who, today, would mock folks putting on airs put some effort into their language - but it's not "higher".

I suspect Leigh is doing a lot more with class than Americans like myself would recognize, and it is kind of fascinating. Rich people singing bawdy songs comes across as mockery and appropriation of working-class culture, for instance. I wouldn't be shocked if rewatches and research were to make me appreciate what Mike Leigh does in this film a lot more.

Mr. Turner

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 January 2015 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, DCP)

This is Mike Leigh's third historical biography, which is somewhat surprising considering what a loosely outlined style he is famous for using - improvisation and recreation do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. And yet, somehow, this winds up an excellent way to get to know Joseph Mallard William "Billy" Turner, more so than any particular narrative might.

Turner (Timothy Spall) was an painter, mostly of landscapes and seascapes, whose career roughly spans the first half of the nineteenth century. At the time the film begins, sometime in the 1820s, he is a solitary man, refusing to acknowledge his illegitimate children and grandchildren, mostly keeping the company of his father William (Paul Jesson) - a former barber who now serves as his son's assistant - and their maid Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson). On a trip to the seashore, he stays in a boarding-house run by a couple by the name of Booth (Karl Johnson & Marion Bailey), to which he will return frequently.

There are events to the movie, whether important turning points, recreations of events that have been set down for posterity, or everyday moments that demonstrate the nature of the times Turner lived in. Leigh credits and thanks many researchers in the end credits, so it is likely that few scenes are invented from whole cloth. They do not resolve into a traditional story arc, with explanations given for behavior or early actions paying off with later results, and for a while the various sequences are so disassociated that it's a bit of a surprise to see Turner return the Booths', or have other people become recurring presences in his life. The lessons to be drawn from this presentation of his life are perhaps small ones.

Full review at EFC.

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