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Originally published Thursday, January 22, 2015 at 3:06 PM

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‘Mr. Turner’: a captivating portrait of British painter

A movie review of “Mr. Turner”: Director Mike Leigh’s portrait of the great British painter J.M.W. Turner stars Timothy Spall. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.


Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review ★★★½  

‘Mr. Turner,’ with Timothy Spall, Marion Bailey, Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Joshua McGuire, Ruth Sheen. Written and directed by Mike Leigh. 149 minutes. Rated R for some sexual content. Sundance (21+).

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In “Mr. Turner,” Timothy Spall has the voice of a rusty hinge. As the great British painter J.M.W. Turner, he speaks in a symphony of grunts and mumbles, sounding, in his nonverbal expressions of agreement or dismay, like a pair of old metal pipes mating. And while you may occasionally strain (or yearn for the odd subtitle) to understand him, it’s a voice that makes sense: Turner, though educated at the Royal Academy of Art, may never have felt at ease in the posh surroundings of his late life. The son of a Covent Garden barber, he spoke through brush strokes, not words.

“Mr. Turner” is directed by Mike Leigh (“Topsy-Turvy,” “Another Year”) — who, it’s apparent from the start, isn’t interested in making a conventional biopic. In the film, a loose collection of scenes, we’re never told what year it is (the film covers roughly the last quarter-century of the life of Turner, who died in 1851 at the age of 76), or given much context for Turner or the many notables from British history (Ruskin, Constable, Soane) who surround him. Instead, we’re given a portrait of a man, made up of dabs and splotches, and it’s often — in the manner of a great painting — mesmerizing.

In “Topsy-Turvy” (a joy of a film), Leigh explored the making of art in a form — musical theater, specifically Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” — that’s collaborative; here, he’s giving us a different kind of story. So much of the movie exists in Spall’s squinty gaze and turned-down mouth as he ponders a potential composition; in the incandescently lovely light created by director of photography Dick Pope (the film’s a parade of exquisite twilights, coral sunsets and softly glowing interiors); in the way that Turner, so cramped and staccato in the way he speaks, finds a flowing wildness while gripping a brush. (Pope’s work received an Academy Award nomination last week; as did, deservedly, Jacqueline Durran’s costumes, Suzie Davies and Charlotte Watts’ production design, and Gary Yershon’s score.)

Gradually, we come to understand Turner the man, through his personal relationships. With his beloved father, William (Paul Jesson), endearingly addressed as “Daddy,” he’s like a happy bear; upon William’s death, the younger Turner is bereft. We meet his devoted housekeeper, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), whose sad-eyed docility Turner exploits as an occasional sexual partner; his ex-mistress, Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), who bitterly resents his neglect of their daughters; the warmly convivial widow Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), who becomes the companion of his late years. And we watch him with colleagues, particularly in a delightful scene at the Royal Academy where he seemingly desecrates his own painting, to the consternation of others.

You leave “Mr. Turner,” as with all good fact-based films, wanting to know more about this man and his work — and remembering that beautiful, almost touchable light, on the canvas and on the screen.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com



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