Overview: The life of the late English, Romanticist painter J.M.W. Turner, whose distinctive watercolor landscapes heralded the dawn of impressionism, lends Mike Leigh’s film its dizzying array of geographic and architectural vistas. 2014; Distributed by Entertainment One; Rated R; 150 minutes.
Possessed of Genius: In attempting to capture the folly of man through the depiction of one of its great artists, Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner is possessed of a genius unlike most other films. A singular talent able to bring the Godly down to earth through aesthetic imitation, Timothy Spall plays the great British painter as a fundamentally flawed human being, one gripped with the urgency of an animalistic sexual passion restrained by the aura of social decorum otherwise intent on cultural relevance and respectability. A veritable artistic savant, Leigh’s Mr. Turner is a character utterly dispossessed of social grace, residing within the aristocratic circles of the Victorian era without the privilege of a noble birth, an interloper allowed asylum due to a singular talent traded as commerce within the economy of an elite circle of well to do patrons. Seated at many a table of finer society, Spall’s presence becomes increasingly brutish, his poeticism bordering on insanity and the collapse of the very pretensions to notoriety and notice that ironically sustain his own individual being and professional ambition.
What a Nice Little Picture: At the heart of Mike Leigh’s study of J.M.W. Turner is the question of how to lend objective value to the inherently subjective pursuit of artistic passion. During any one of Mr. Turner’s numerous scenes of passive and passionless artistic exhibition, the viewer is afforded a glimpse into the slighting way in which the zeal of life instilled into the very materials that make up Turner’s masterworks will only ever be acknowledged by the masses as yet another nice little picture from an established manufacturer. While Turner may see the storminess of his very soul depicted in contrast against the brief glimpse towards an ethereal majesty in his evocations of Leigh’s wondrously composed shots and sequences, that existentially indispensible value is inherently one sided. For most, Turner’s pictures are remarkable strictly in terms of market value, the artist himself a mere peddler of trinkets in the bazaars of the cultural elite. Like any great art form, the object of Mr. Turner’s attentions is woefully disposable, and more likely than not reproducible ad infinitum. Thus the Sisyphean determination of the will to persist in creating, summarily speaking Mr. Turner’s urgently issued rhetorical salvo.
Commerce and Art: Towards the end of the second act, Leigh’s Mr. Turner visits a photographer’s studio. It is there where his own relevance is conclusively judged and found lacking in its impermanent facsimile. With the dawn of the camera able to more accurately and definitively capture the passing of time, Turner’s work is deemed insufficient. A tactile representation nowhere near as exacting in its ability to record the wonders of the world, the art gallery is thusly relegated solely to the cultural elite. It is at this point in Mr. Turner where perhaps the greatest moment of the impending modernity of the 20th century rears its head, and with it the marriage between commerce and art, heretofore persistently irksome, is broken down. When yet another stuffy patron inquires into the possibility of procuring Turner’s entire life’s work, the great British painter flatly refuses, insisting on the availability of his very essence into perpetuity, gratis, ushering in the dawn of non-profit exhibition and museums the world over.
Overall: Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner is a film on the commerce of the human soul proven invaluable; a cinematic experience by turns wondrously evocative of the essence of creative and artistic expression as the sole way towards a freedom of the spirit that transcends the mores and rules of a more structured socio-cultural society.