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Under Canvas

Simon Mein/Sony Pictures Classics

Mr. Turner (2014)

A biopic on 19th century British painter J. M. W. Turner, “Mr. Turner” is unequivocally the most visually arresting film to date from Mike Leigh. The co-steward of kitchen-sink British realism here proves beyond doubt that he’s capable of more than just one trick, unlike his Belgian counterparts.

The estimable Timothy Spall stars as the titular character, whose going MIA seemed to worry his ailing father, William (Paul Jesson), and thankless maid, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson); and upset mistress Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) and their two daughters (Sandy Foster and Amy Dawson).

The story is told so linearly and matter-of-factly that some of its most pertinent information is dispersed in passing and reveals its significance only in hindsight. One example is Turner’s mother, who is unseen in the film but apparently had a profound effect on his messy liaisons with Sarah, Hannah and later his landlord, Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey).

Passing references to the industrial revolution also provide much insight. Best known for his nautical paintings, Turner saw his stock plummet once rail replaced ferry as the default mode of long-distance transportation. Similarly, the artist had to grapple with the advent of photography.

The sharpest commentary is reserved for clueless art patrons; whether Mr. Leigh is projecting his own experience as an artist is anyone’s guess.

“Mr. Turner” painstakingly paints such a detailed portrait that those with enough patience to hang in there will be able to appreciate the complete picture and the filmmaker’s craftsmanship.


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