VIFF Review: Mr. Turner

I’ve said before that one of the things I love about movies is those few occasions when I get to witness one of the great performances of our time, when an actor disappears into a role completely, and I can forget even the most familiar of faces as belonging to an actor I’ve seen before and instead see the character that they are playing.

This doesn’t happen quite as often as you might think, but it happened today when I saw Mr. Turner, in which Timothy Spall played famed British painter J.M.W. Turner.

2014 Vancouver International Film Festival

The film chronicles the last 20-odd years of the great painter’s life, from the height of his career to falling out of favour as his work moved from traditional landscapes toward more abstract impressionism.

While the film tells Turner’s story, it doesn’t attempt to glorify him; the story is presented with warts and all. Case in point, while being a respected (if disruptive) member of the Royal Academy of Arts, he also had an estranged mistress, two daughters and a grandchild whom he treated coldly and whose existence he denied in public. He once had himself tied to the top of the mast of a sailing ship to get a better impression of (and thus paint) a snowstorm, but he also casually exploited his long-serving housekeeper sexually. Turner was a master artist but a grunting, unpleasant boor in day-to-day life.

Throughout the film, Timothy Spall disappears entirely into the character. He won the Best Actor award at Cannes this year, and you can rest assured that he’ll be up for Best Actor at the next Academy Awards. There is a fair chance for the film to be nominated for Best Picture (the academy loves period drama), and director Mike Leigh will likely get a nod.

Leigh has an interesting process in which every scene is heavily workshopped through improvisation rather than written as a script. As a result, every scene feels natural, like it’s being lived rather than acted, and add to this the flourish of Victorian English speech, and you’ve got a recipe for some pretty great dialogue right there.

Biopics can be a difficult thing to pull off. They can either condemn or celebrate the subject too much. _Mr. Turner_ does neither; it simply tells the story and does so unflinchingly and in fantastic detail. It is a great film, maybe one of the best biopics I’ve seen in ages, highlighted by a genuinely amazing central performance by Timothy Spall. Mr Turner sees wide release in North America on 19th December, and you should definitely see it when it does.