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Mr. Turner

Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner Focus Features

Mr. Turner
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Mr. Turner, written and directed by Mike Leigh, is not so much a film as it is a moving painting. Lingering wide-angle shots bathe Dutch windmills and ships in sunlight. People seem insignificant in these landscapes—when they appear at all.

This is fitting for a biopic about eccentric landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. An ancestor of modern abstract artists, Turner shocked his Victorian audiences with indistinct paintings of seascapes and snowstorms. With its convoluted romances and indulgent style, this film will shock modern audiences, as well.

Mr. Turner doesn’t have much of a plot: Turner intermittently paints and spends the rest of the 2½-hour runtime pursuing women. The real-life Turner had twisted relationships, to say the least. He denied his two daughters and refused to support their mother, and he took a seaside hotel owner as his mistress. The film focuses on these aspects and also invents a lecherous dalliance with Turner’s maid, earning its R rating for sexual content.

The film could have been cut by an hour and still made sense. Lead actor Timothy Spall does the best he can with the lengthy script to turn Turner into an empathetic, if crass, character.

Perhaps the saddest part of the film is Turner’s self-isolation. Painting is usually a solitary pursuit, but Turner takes this to an extreme. He has no real friends. He would rather travel alone with an artist’s portfolio tucked under his arm than risk vulnerability. He even isolates himself from God: When a doctor tells Turner that he will die of a heart condition, the artist says, “So I’ll become a nonentity.”

One Scottish woman tells Turner that his paintings make viewers see the chaos in the universe. According to Leigh’s script, art makes sense and beauty out of a cruel and meaningless world. But perhaps both life and art do have ultimate meaning. Perhaps the light in Turner’s paintings symbolizes a deeper yearning for an eternal light and truth.

Rikki Elizabeth Stinnette Rikki is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD contributor.


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