Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner arrived in Cannes with a lot of fanfare, being one of two British films in the Competition and marking the director’s second foray into historical biography after 1999’s Topsy-Turvy (the fictional Vera Drake doesn’t count). For anyone who tuned in to Leigh’s films late in his career, there’s a curiosity in seeing where he goes with Mr. Turner, a biopic of the 19th century painter. Turner’s life fleetingly overlaps those of Mssrs Gilbert and Sullivan, the subjects of Topsy-Turvy, but Mr. Turner is a rather more sombre film. There are comical flourishes for sure, but little in the way of wit, as displayed by the title character.
To start with the plus points, Dick Pope’s cinematography is superb, a midway point between Turner’s often dreary daily life and the exquisite chaos of his canvases. The production design, too, is near-perfect, with Turner’s London home as lived-in as any of Leigh’s contemporary characters. And for a while Timothy Spall’s performance is excellent, too: a huffing, puffing Hogarthian grotesque who, between trips to the continent, lives a Tweedledee/Tweedledum-like existence with his old dad and his housekeeper.
Now, it may just be the Palais cinema audio, but the dialogue was quite hard to hear for a while, partly because Spall frequently swallows his words and uses archaic phrases but also because the sound in the theatre seemed somewhat murky. As a result, for the first half hour Turner seemed to come across simply as a mumbling, irascible, unknowable force of nature. The epic, episodic scrapbook that ensued soon became a chore, a carnival of character actors enlivened every now and then by the return of Ruth Sheen as Turner’s bitter ex-wife.
For the most part, Mr. Turner is a character sketch of a troubled genius; Leigh makes it quite clear that the painter’s sexual hang-ups were severe, and scenes of his maltreatment (or idealisation) of women are included alongside those outlining his place in (and contempt for) the art world. Halfway into the movie, however, rooting for Mr Turner became too challenging – and this critic rooted for Henry, in Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. Here, though, Spall’s tics and grunts swiftly became an irritation.
Maybe a cosy evening screening, not the harsh 8.30am start of first-week Cannes, might have made it more palatable. Possibly not. Like many of Leigh’s character pieces, Mr. Turner is somewhat heightened, and 146 minutes in his spluffing, humphing, irritable and irritating company is something of a slog.