Coming from a year of an underwhelming and overrated collection of biopics, I had high hopes for Mr. Turner. It was the subject of nearly universal critical acclaim, and its exclusion from the major Oscar categories lent the film a degree of mystery, only exacerbated by the film’s theatrical run never reaching anywhere near my home. Alas, the wait proved only to raise my expectations too high, as Mr. Turner is just as trying as its other Oscar-baiting brethren, though it astonishes me that this particular piece didn’t hook the Academy as other biopics did.
J.M.W. Turner was a renowned painter of the early-mid 1800s, known as the primary inspiration for what would become known as the Impressionist movement. The film takes place during the last two decades of Turner’s life, and does not seem to craft much of a purpose for itself other than plodding from scene to scene in what amounts to a dramatic re-enactment of scenes that very well could have been a part of Turner’s day-to-day. Turner is played by the character actor Timothy Spall, and though his performance is fantastically nuanced in its portrayal of a reprehensible, selfish man, his constant grunting and grumbling begins to wear a bit thin over the course of the film’s overlong runtime.
To give credit where credit is due, the cinematography by the great Dick Pope is simply gorgeous, worthy of admiration as much as Turner’s visceral landscapes. The camera here acts as a window into how Turner saw the world, in rich and vibrant colors found in the natural world, yet lovingly recreated on Turner’s canvas. Yet, to say that a film is beautifully shot does not imply forgiveness for what is narratively a dull and drab affair.
For the first ninety minutes, there hardly seems to be a purpose in the film’s structure, as Turner’s success is counterpointed by his public disownership of his family and his sexual exploitation of his house servant. The film moves from scene to scene with an episodic quality to it, and yet each episode feels devoid of meaning without greater context, which is neither provided in theme or relative to other scenes. Only when the film hits the final hour of its exhausting 150 minutes does a purpose begin to take shape. Turner loses the acclaim he once held in British high society, becoming a hack in the eyes of popular culture, even though his work has remained substantially of equal quality. It becomes a commentary on the influence of gossip and celebrity on public appreciation of art, and though it is an apt point, it takes the film far too long with far too many dalliances to get there.
Ultimately, Mr. Turner suffers from the same issue as many biopics, particularly those that have somehow entered the limelight in 2014; it dramatizes a life with little to no narrative through-line, telling a series of events that would much better be suited to a documentary. Mr. Turner might have even been great as a narrative piece, though, if it weren’t so bloated with unnecessary scenes that redundantly hammer home how Turner’s personal ethics were greatly at odds with his public adoration. This could just as easily have been told in ninety minutes with tighter construction, but in the end, Mr. Turner did not leave enough on the cutting room floor.
What other films are too bloated for their own good? Share your thoughts in the comments below.