Period pieces can often be boring, idealistic, stodgy affairs with performers impressed with the sounds of their own voices and an attention to authentic exterior detail that buries and smothers truths and emotions.
Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner" is, in many ways, one of the most beautiful period pieces I have ever seen. It has garnered itself four Oscar nominations based on how good it looks and sounds, and it rightly deserves those nominations.
At the same time, this is one of the ugliest, most unpleasant depictions of a human being to grace screens in many moons. Timothy Spall portrays the title character, renowned British painter J.M.W. Turner, as a grunting, confoundedly selfish, petulant nightmare. While Spall's Turner isn't without his redeeming qualities, he's a mostly despicable man.
The film covers the last quarter century of his life. (Turner died in 1851 at the age of 76.) We see Turner living with his dad (Paul Jesson), a man he clearly loves. His father dies a horrible death involving his lungs, something Turner witnesses and is tremendously affected by. Let it be said that if there were an Oscar solely for the depiction of death via messed-up lungs, "Mr. Turner" would have that sucker cornered.
The artist was having an affair with Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), who lived as an assistant in his home. Leigh's film depicts Danby as a shy woman obviously in love with Turner, with Turner himself only using her for sex (albeit disgusting, animalistic, ugly sex) and keeping house.
For the last part of his life, he lived with his other lover, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey) in Chelsea, England. Some of the scenes with Mrs. Booth are warm and tender, but as Turner ages the scenes become a little more chaotic and cold.
The plot of the film is loose, much like Leigh's other films. The film is also quite long at 150 minutes. There are snippets of Turner wandering the countryside for landscape painting inspiration. At one point he has himself secured to a ship's mast so he can witness and mentally record a snowstorm for painting purposes.
While we do see some quick scenes of Spall painting and sketching, the film doesn't do much to show us what made Turner such an influential artist. (His paintings sell for many millions today.) The art and how it is created is often pushed into the background. He's just sort of a miserable jerk who happens to paint well.
As for its much-deserved Oscar nominations, cinematographer Dick Pope does a brilliant job of capturing the sort of landscapes that would indeed inspire an artist to paint. His work indoors is just as strong, capturing a nineteenth century England where even the rich lived in dark, sometimes dreary conditions. The film also picked up nominations for art direction and costuming, with both being superb. Gary Yershon's Oscar nominated score is evocative and moody.
Oddly enough, the film's most celebrated aspect, that being Spall's performance, has been ignored by Oscar. Spall won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as some critic's awards, and was considered a favorite for nomination. I'm thinking some voters probably took umbrage with his constant grunting.
His performance is strong, but a little tough to watch at times. The goal here was to recreate a relatively unpleasant man, and Spall succeeds. His Turner is a cross between Danny DeVito's Penguin and Terry Jones's Mr. Cresote from "Monty Python's Meaning of Life." For those unfamiliar with Python, Cresote was a terribly obnoxious, obese man who grunted all his lines and eventually vomited all over everything. While Spall's Turner isn't nearly as gigantic, and coughs a lot rather than barfs, the voice he employs is almost a carbon copy of the guttural sounds Jones utilized.
So, as period pieces go, "Mr. Turner" turns out to be of the more unpleasant strain. It's a film well worth watching, but takes some getting used to. I have great respect for what Leigh, Spall and the rest of the crew managed to put together, even if it is totally depressing.