Mr. Turner is the latest masterful but somehow incomplete attempt by Mike Leigh.
This flick is beautiful, disgusting, and an incredibly insightful representation of England in the 1800s. It's the true story of famous painter J.M.W. Turner. But it tends to veer away from any strict plot progressions. Mr. Turner runs about a half-hour longer than it should, and the overall film really suffers from sagging into tedium... particularly in the final quarter when we're made to wonder "will he die in this scene? Or the next? Or the next?"
It is very unfortunate that a film that so perfectly captures a style of life can manage to misstep when all of its cards are on the table. Honestly, Timothy Spell does his damnedest to deliver a truly incredible performance. His relationships with Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, and Martin Savage are mesmerizing... and I really believe this entire ensemble should have been honored with some kind of group award throughout the more obscure award ceremonies. It would seem every single actor on set had a complete understanding of the material and brought their absolute A-game. This is why it seems so very unfortunate that Mike Leigh himself could not reign in the material to actual make a complete movie and not an overwhelming blob that eventually suffocates itself...
Yet when I put it like that I have to waver for a moment and consider the character of J.M.W. Turner himself. I would go so far as to say, this movie is built to be a meta example of the man. It is beautiful in a rather disgusting way... the pace does not seem to matter to it as the pace of life seems to simply wash past Turner... he simply seems to accept the next moment never questioning his own actions or the current state of affairs. In fact, even when he becomes wise enough to recognize his own faults and failings, the man never once lifts a finger to try and make a change... he just continues to allow the issue to linger. When I put it like that to myself, I have to applaud the attempt Mike Leigh made to capture that energy in the shape of the film itself. It just becomes unfortunate that such a contextual illumination cannot make that final quarter of the film more enjoyable.
But let's reverse. I was firmly on board with everything through the first hour and a half at least... probably more. The film opens on a very bleak picture and the score (that amazing score) comes in like no score I've ever heard before. It's like it's tuning up the orchestra, but to an actual song that will never completely take shape, but simply haunt your mind through the films runtime. And if Gary Yershon does not receive at least an Oscar nomination for his efforts I will be greatly disappointed with the Academy. This score is breathtaking, bleak, beautiful, and all at once haunting. It is precisely the kind of score the film requires. And it does not fold to anyone else's standards. Like the paintings... like the cinematography: so amazingly planned and punctuated by Dick Pope. Practically everything about this movie works besides the runtime... the tedium of death that fills the final minutes... the failed message at the end of people remembered and forgotten.
Mr. Turner is an amazing but flawed achievement. I wanted so badly to come out of the theatre considering it one of my favorite films of the year... and it came so very close to achieving immortality in my heart. But ultimately the ball dropped and the baton never passed... and Mr. Turner became just another almost great film. I'd absolutely recommend you go and see it, particularly if you're interested in quality period pieces... but this recommendation comes with a heavy asterisk. Be aware, it will not die so well as it lives.