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The Not-So Titillating Mr.Turner

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What does it mean if a movie gets an astounding 98% critic rating and a measly 60% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes? Does it speak to a lack of audience sophistication? Or is it possible that critics were so lost in the technical features of a film that they forgot the most important aspect of the movie going experience is to be entertained? The latter is certainly the case for Mike Leigh’s 2014 Mr. Turner, a beautifully boring and delightfully dull biopic about England’s favorite landscape painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner.

This film serves as a visual sketch of a man’s life that leaves the audience intrigued, but ultimately longing to see a completed piece. It meanders through the latter life of Turner with no consideration of an audience’s prior understanding of the subject or, in fact, their ability to decipher what little verbal information is given (the majority of Timothy Spall’s compelling but caricatured performance is recited in grunts and thick cockney).

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As seen on your student-grade paperback of Great Expectations, Turner witnesses one of Nelson’s ships tugged to the scrapyard in a beautifully crafted but fictionalized moment.

Thanks to the wonderful art direction by Dan Taylor the audience is visually transported through enhanced landscapes meant to reflect Turner’s unique vision of the world.  However, despite the film’s beauty the screenplay lacks cohesion, taking the audience from the gorgeous vistas of Scotland and Chelsea followed suddenly and without explanation to Turner giving an indecipherable lecture or on the Thames watching a ship being tugged into harbor.

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The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up (1838), The National Gallery, London

We are meant to understand this scene as the inspiration for one of his most beloved paintings, The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, but this reference would be completely lost on an audience member not familiar with the work. The fact that the moment is fictionalized (Turner did not witness the ship being tugged in) speaks towards a tendency to prioritize pictures over prose, a decision that gives us mere impressions of his life and uncomfortably deep impressions in our theatre seats as we wade through all 150 minutes of Turner’s moods.

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In one of the movie’s finer moments of satirical humor, Turner enrages rival John Constable by dabbing red paint on one of his own finished masterpieces, Helvoetsluys, Ships going out to sea, 1832 (above) in parody of Constable’s color palette. He then surprises everybody by converting the abstract splotch into a buoy. Constable said of the real-life incident, “Turner has been in here and fired a gun!”

That’s not to say that the film does not offer some genuinely moving and funny moments, much to the credit of the wonderful cast. Spall’s ape-like performance is simultaneously funny, moving, and disgusting. During one cinematically compelling scene we see Turner being tied to the mast of a ship during a blizzard, a real life incident inspired by a quirky desire to see a storm from the inside out.

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Spall spent two years learning to paint for the role, recreating a full-sized version of Turner’s Snow Storm: Steam-boat off a Harbour’s Mouth in the process.

Spall conveys Turner’s hungry enchantment for nature with a charming childlike enthusiasm matching the painter’s own vision. We see him as a true Romantic and constant observer of nature and man, calmly waiting for inspiration to strike and when it does, delivering a great blow. Whether he is passionately spitting and throwing paint on a canvas, or calmly awaiting the right moment to make an astute quip, Spall plays the artist with patience and power.

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In a nineteenth-century game of “Where’s Waldo” Turner’s aged father (played by Paul Jesson) teases an admirer by challenging her to find art history’s smallest elephant in Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps at the Tate Britain.

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John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) poised to kiss Turner’s ass in his deliciously brutal satire of the blowhard art critic.

Another stand out performance, and one which adds to the much needed humor laced throughout the film is provided by Joshua McGuire in the role of John Ruskin. The audience may be able to deduce from the character’s overwrought speeches on art and utter devotion to Turner the fact that Ruskin was a well-known art patron and critic, but it’s unlikely. Rather you’re left to wonder why Turner is hanging out with such a pompous dandy.

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Art Criticim by Frederick Waddy (1873) depicts Ruskin and his inflated head/ego

Ruskin throws around superfluous terms with such sincerity that you almost pity how genuinely clueless he is to his own boorishness. His discussion of The Slave Ship, which hangs at the bottom of his stairs offers a particularly ironic moment as he gives Turner an enthusiastic account of how fantastic all the painting’s technical aspects are and how happy he is to see them every day on his way to breakfast, while apparently forgetting that he is talking about a painting depicting drowning slaves. This moment is a reference to Ruskin’s original review of the painting, a review so silly as to be mocked by Mark Twain who said “[Ruskin’s] cultivation enables him – and me, now – to see water in that glaring yellow mud…it reconciles him – and me, now – to the floating or iron cable-chains and other unfloatable things.”

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The Slave Ship or Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on (1840) OR as Ruskin referred to it “the power, majesty, and deathfulness of the open, deep, illimitable Sea”

To his credit McGuire’s performance is such brilliant buffoonery you stop caring that only the most observant audience member would catch onto his historical significance to art (among other things he would aid in the defamation that led to the bankruptcy of James Whistler).Though not directly discussed, there is a moment at a dinner party where Turner gawkily lusts/ grunts after Ruskin’s wife, a possible allusion to her future art-muse status as Effie Gray, mistress, model and eventual wife to John Everet Millais.

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Turner lusting over Effie Gray (credited as “Ruskin’s Wife”).  Though the movie gives us only a criminally fleeting glimpse of one of the Victorian art world’s most notorious bad girls, the scene subtly foreshadows the onset of the Pre-Raphaelites.

The dinner party isn’t the only time we get to see Turner turn it on for the ladies. In what seems to be a test of how bestial Spall can be (playing Scabbers/ Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter wasn’t enough) we are repeatedly treated to Turner’s raging hormones as he gropes his maid and beds his Chelsea proprietress in what is simultaneously the most funny and awkward display of sex I’ve ever seen … it’s like watching a pug mount a sheepdog.

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A later scene in which Turner sketches a young prostitute (a nod to the hundreds of erotic images he created throughout his proficient career) is a prime example of Spall’s ability to portray the complexity of the character; we are amused, repulsed and deeply moved by the gracelessness of this aging artist requesting an indifferent woman to pose for him.

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England’s most revered painter or 19th-cetury R. Crumb? Erotic Figure Studies, just one of Turner’s 30,000 pieces of erotic art kept at the Tate

In summary, Mr. Turner is as boring as it is pretty, which is to say very. Normally I would try my best not to critique a film by calling it boring. Other adjectives like “slow-paced” or “cumulative” are kinder and typically more accurate in explaining how I can think Picnic at Hanging Rock is a wonderful cinematic achievement while justifying falling asleep three times before getting through the whole thing. I wish there were a more reverent way to describe the overall experience as the craftsmanship in both the production and the performances was exceptional, but I fear that like Turner’s later paintings the film completely lacked focus.

By: Sarah Oesterling 

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Sarah Oesterling

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