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Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner a triumph

by Mark Burger

Timothy Spall cuts a powerful figure in Mr. Turner, a long but effortlessly absorbing drama that traces the later life of the esteemed British painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Spall gives a growling, grumbling, shambling performance reminiscent of Charles Laughton or Robert Newton, yet his Mr. Turner is never a caricature. It’s highly theatrical yet never excessive “” a true star turn from this talented, reliable character actor.

He’s aggressive, uncouth and ill-tempered at times, yet he’s endearing in his eccentricities “” and his artistic abilities are without question. Turner is not the quintessential “tortured artist.” He has his insecurities and foibles, to be sure, but he’s well aware of his talent and has an ego healthy enough to insult or belittle his critics or fellow artists when the mood strikes him. As well as telling the story about this particular man, writer/director Mike Leigh also takes the opportunity to satirize artists and critics alike, yet he belittles neither. It’s yet another fine accomplishment from an indefatigable and indomitable filmmaker, who remains a true original.

Understandably, Spall dominates the film, but there’s fine work from Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s extremely devoted housekeeper, Martion Bailey as a lonely widow who becomes his lover, and Paul Jesson as Turner’s father, whose death is a serious emotional blow to the artist. The scenes between Spall and Jesson are particularly warm.

Leigh’s dialogue is rich and ripe, a fascinating use of language that expresses not only what is being said but the underlying meaning of the words being spoken. Remarkably, although the film earned four Academy Award nominations, including a well-deserved one for cinematographer Dick Pope (who brings both the landscapes of the film and Turner’s paintings to vivid, vibrant life onscreen), Leigh’s screenplay was overlooked. Mr. Turner also earned nominations for Best Costume Design, Best Production Design and Best Original Score “” all acknowledgments of worthy work in a film that undoubtedly ranks as one of 2014’s finest.

Mr. Turner opens Friday. !

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