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Mr Turner

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Mike Leigh’s biopic of the artist JMW Turner is, in equal parts, gorgeous to look at, amusing to follow and frustrating to understand. Timothy Spall is mesmerising in the titular role, communicating as much through guttural sounds as dialogue and his proud yet shambling gait. Despite this, however, the character of Turner remains largely impenetrable. His artistic genius is evident, as are the mechanics of his relationships with his family, his peers and his lovers, but you rarely get a sense of his motivations nor get under his skin. Dick Pope’s digital cinematography creates some startling and beautiful images, the line between painting and technological image capture becoming blurred in some places. Were this blurring a conceit of the film overall, it could have been an interesting meditation on the nature of imaging and art itself, but Leigh seems less concerned with any central theme(s) and instead adopts a meandering, warts-and-all portrayal. Towards the end of the film, fears over the march of modernity start to creep into the narrative, including the train and, significantly, photography. Yet this is no more central than Turner’s neglect of his children, his intermittent sexual engagements and his contemptuous associations with high society. The net result is a film that feels broad and unfocused, offering no central ideas nor a propulsive narrative. There is much to admire in Mr Turner, but it is ultimately, like Turner himself, hard to love. But then, it’s art, so perhaps that’s the point.

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