There’s a feeling you get while watching Mr. Turner. You get the sense that this isn’t a film that you’re supposed to really enjoy, but instead you’re supposed to respect what it has to offer. It’s slow and meandering, making it very difficult to have a good time while watching it, but it’s not meant for that. It’s for those who wanted to learn more about the life of its protagonist, J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), and watch a beautiful recreation of the time period in which he lived. It’s not about enjoying oneself, really; it’s about appreciating what the filmmakers bring to life.
Yes, Mr. Turner is about the famous British painter. His life contained things of moderate interest, his art is considered good, and his story is kind of worth paying attention to. This is a story that allows the filmmakers to make us think about things like legacy and love, and since it’s set in the past and strongly features a single performance, we can also safely assume it was created with Oscar aspirations in the back of their minds.
If one wanted to, the term “Oscar bait” could quite easily be applied to Mr. Turner. It’s exactly that type of film. One really great leading performance, a period piece setting, a couple of strongly resonating themes, and a complicated, non-fictional protagonist are all present here. If J.M.W. Turner also suffered from a mental illness — maybe some could claim that he does — then we’d have hit on all the various notches that we can to deem it “Oscar bait.”
I feel like you don’t even need to see Mr. Turner to basically figure out whether or not you’re going to like it. It’s a biographical period piece about a challenging painter that runs for two and a half hours at a pace as slow as molasses. It doesn’t exactly scream “mainstream appeal,” now does it? There are some people who will sit back, soak in the period, and enjoy every second of this meandering picture. There are others who will want to stop watching it only a few minutes in, because it will become obvious right away that it is not for them.
I find myself sympathizing with both parties. You can get lost in Mr. Turner. Its production design is wonderful, its cinematography is gorgeous, and while the focus is most certainly on Timothy Spall, turning in what might be career-best work, the supporting cast does all it can to help set the stage. You get transported back in time, and with the lengthy running time, you stay there for a good while. It is, at times, captivating. And since Turner was an interesting person, it’s not like you’re just here for the scenery.
However, we also spend a lot of time meandering, and in theory one could cut the film down by 30 minutes, drastically speed up the pacing, and not much would be lost. But that would also result in a different film, and not the one that director Mike Leigh wanted. He wants us to sit and study his movie, much like one might do a painting, and get lost in what it has to offer. A quicker pace might ruin that, even if it’d get the story told faster and more efficiently.
Timothy Spall is our star, here delivering what might be the best performance of his career. He frowns and scowls his way through the role, but also adds some nuances that make it feel more well-rounded. He is sometimes funny, too. The supporting cast isn’t to be outdone. You aren’t likely to know too many of the names, but everyone is effective in Mr. Turner. Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, and Martin Savage play the significant supporting roles, and all of them are great.
Mr. Turner is a strong biopic that you already pretty much know whether or not you’re going to like it. It’s long, it’s slow, it takes place in the 1800s, it’s about a single man who is performed wonderfully by Timothy Spall. If that sounds like something you’d like, then you probably will. If it sounds like a plodding and meandering movie that doesn’t interest you, then the two and a half hours it takes to play aren’t going to convince you otherwise. You can get lost in Mr. Turner, but only if you already like these sorts of movies. Mr. Turner is easier to respect than it is to enjoy.