Toronto Critic's Pick: 'Mr. Turner' Paints a Mesmerizing Portrait of an Obsessive Artist

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Thelma Adams
·Writer
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Timothy Spall grunts, gurgles and sputters playing J. M. W. Turner — the English painter whose stunning landscapes helped define the Romantic era — in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. His is the eccentric performance that seems to resonate with Oscar voters. The round-faced British character actor, best known for playing Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films, took the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his crass-yet-compelling portrait of an artist as a wheezy old lout.

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Supplementing this fine performance is Dick Pope’s magnificent cinematography, which underscores the notion that this was an artist blessed with a sublime vision. From the opening shot of a windmill and white-capped women, presented in golden light that recalls a Turner canvas, Pope stages each vista like a masterpiece in motion.

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Leigh, who last did this kind of period piece with 1999’s Topsy-Turvy, about Victorian opera masters Gilbert and Sullivan, has a sly intention in this biopic, which covers the quarter century leading up to Turner’s death in 1851. The director, often known to be a curmudgeon, creates a shining characterization of a flawed, complex-yet-completely committed artist who created works of a lasting brilliance still revered today. Sounds familiar, Mr Leigh?     

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While Mr. Turner painstakingly recreates the past, adding a supporting cast of characters — from many of Turner’s famous contemporaries to Queen Victoria herself — the movie suffers from a script devoid of any narrative tension. Great moments of conflict and drama – and some rude sex – come and go, but the over-arching screenplay never builds any momentum. Drama requires transformation, but Turner remains unchanged. The snorting, obsessed artist audiences see sketching away in the movie’s opening sequence, is not much different from the snarly codger on his death bed, 25 years later, who declares “the sun is gone,” before expiring with a final gurgle. 

Mr. Turner opens in select theaters on Dec. 19