Mike Leigh is not a typical filmmaker. He does not tell a story following a script. Rather, Leigh uses extensive improvisations, rehearsed with his cast, and developed over a long period of time. This process builds the featured characters through and through, creating a story, or at least a sense of a story. While this makes Leigh’s characters anything but shallow, it also makes watching his movies more challenging as there is no clear plotline to follow. Thus, while I do not always fully enjoy Leigh’s creations, I do have an appreciation for his unique style and thoughtful intent. His latest film, Mr. Turner, which tells the story of the accomplished British painter J. M. W. Turner’s (1775–1851) later years, falls into that category – a film I appreciated but did not much enjoyed.
Mr. Turner is a British, French and German production, falling into the biopic genre. It was written and directed by Mike Leigh, and is starring Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Jesson, Marion Bailey, Lesley Manville and Martin Savage. Acting, art direction, camera work and other related production roles, are superb. Yet at a 150 minutes, the film feels an hour too long.
Maybe more than anything else, Mr. Turner, for me, is a period piece; a film depicting life as it were in the mid-1800s. It was a time tainted with high rate of child death (during labor or shortly after,) ineffective medicine (typical for the era,) and poor sanitation; a period with its sounds and sceneries which Leigh and his team vividly bring to life, more often than not, unapologetically. While many other films about Britain at that era depict, for example, manicured aristocracy, I favor Leigh’s version which takes into consideration that not all nobles of the time had an extensive team of Hollywood makeup and hairdressing artists to make sure they always look like royalty. Yes, their cloths may had been of better quality, their houses were mansions, and they had exquisite art hanging on their walls, but everything else was not as glamorous.
Mr. Turner is a film about a renown painter, yet it is the person behind the name that Leigh tries to uncover. It is a film that, as a friend of mine with whom I watched Mr. Turner commented, you appreciate more after the end-credits roll than during the show. It is therefore not a big surprise that Mr. Turner received 98% approval rating by film critics on Rotten Tomatoes but only 59% by audiences.