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Mr. Turner (Blu-ray Review)

11 May, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Sony Pictures

Box Office $3.96 million
$30.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for some sexual content.
Stars Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson.

Mike Leigh notes on a bonus extra here that he decided to proceed on this dream project just as he was wrapping up Topsy-Turvy — which, when you put the two films together, makes one wonder if he’s the kind of guy who’s ever inclined toward taking a breather.

Among my half-dozen favorite screen achievements of the past quarter-century, the writer-director’s 1999 Gilbert & Sullivan extravaganza is not too arguably the modern era’s end-all, be-all of sumptuous cinema, the closest Brit thing to a reincarnation of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. But in its own way (and at 150 minutes), Leigh’s 2.35:1 portrait of the now revered 19th-century landscape and nautical artist J.M.W. Turner was probably as formidable an undertaking. Take, for example, the scene here in which painting enthusiasts compress themselves into an 1832 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition room where about 250 works of all sizes are squeezed into minimal space (there’d hardly be any room to dust). Production designer Suzie Davies, working for her first picture for Leigh but fitting right in, acts as if she can’t believe they pulled off this set piece, either.

The successfully attempted visual motif was having the movie look like a Turner painting the artist and the final 26 years move in and out of, though after Leigh and his great cinematographer Dick Pope experimented with CGI as a way to pull this off, they knew what they didn’t want to do. What they managed to achieve must have been a more arduous way to do it, and when Leigh says on his feature-length commentary that the movie had a tight budget, one has a real you-coulda-fooled-me reaction, though the subject matter was obviously never going to be boffo box office material. Yet as Topsy-Turvy was in its day, Mr. Turner was one of its year’s pace setters when it came to “cosmetic” Oscar nominations: production design, cinematography, costumes and the like.

Speaking of the last, Timothy Spall missed a nomination for playing Turner, but he far outpaced the second-place finisher when taking the National Society of Film Critics voting and also won top honor from New York (print critics), London and at the Cannes Film Festival. This might be last year’s most complex characterization by an actor: We see Turner as sometimes boorish and sometimes sympathetic and even wise. He’s loving to his father and to the twice widowed lady/landlord who becomes his final companion as part of a double life in separate cities — yet callous toward a housekeeper who hangs on for decades and even more so the woman who trivializes his art but has borne his children (also to the children, though he’s shattered when one of them dies). He’s unpretentious in many ways and occasionally offhand about the stature of his work — but is also one who takes his membership in the Royal Academy seriously and with deep pride. He’s also fascinated by new technologies, and two of the standout scenes here involve color work involving a visitor’s experimentation with prisms and, later, the then new-fangled still photography at a time when the form hadn’t yet learned how to capture pigments.

No photos exist of the real Turner, and Leigh notes that the self-portrait the artist did (and you can see it for yourself on Wikipedia) was on the flattering side compared to common wisdom. Spall emphasizes corpulence, and the sound he frequently emits suggests something you might hear from a cave-dwelling animal when passing by the cave (and you’d likely keep on moving). One of the delights of Leigh’s hugely informative feature-length commentary is hearing him talk about his abundant stock company stretching many movies back. The astounder here is Dorothy Atkinson as the housekeeper; she’s about 400 times more presentable in real life than in the movie (she must not have many ego problems).

This one really has it all: full-blooded characters; the grunt work of artistry; social life among the upper classes; peer rivalries; political considerations (Queen Victoria apparently hated Turner’s work); and even, yes, critics in its portrayal of the apparently insufferable John Ruskin, who was also a central character in last year’s Effie Gray. (a movie Leigh offhandedly notes was “kicking around” at about the same time last year; maybe peer rivalry is a subject he knows something about as well). Technically, the Blu-ray is tops, especially if you’ve seen the year-end screeners that Sony sent out to abet the critics’ voting process. They didn’t do justice to a shot-on-video movie that could end up looking washed-out if not rendered properly, but there are not problems here. If you can ever run this Blu-ray alongside Criterion’s for Topsy-Turvy, you’ll see that there can’t be all that much that Leigh and especially Pope don’t know about the full color spectrum.

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