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Mr. Turner

I am a fan of storytelling. I love a good story. When I watch a film, I want to be told a good story. All of the elements of filmmaking — the acting, direction, cinematography, set dressing and mise en scene — all should serve the story. Story is the reason I love movies and books more than paintings and sculpture.

A good story is a powerful, almost mythical thing, and cultures all over the world and all through time recognize this. One of the things I love about Jesus is that he was a master storyteller. He knew, as did Mohammed, Buddha  and many others, that you can embody an entire universe in a story. Philosophers and theologians fill volumes with explanations of stories the masters told with a few words.

You don’t have to look very long to find critics and/or film school graduates who complain about the constricts of plot, which is to say, story. They love formless movies, impressionistic movies, the kind of film that is more interested in evoking a mood or a feeling instead of telling a story.

To me, critics (and filmmakers) who talk like this remind me of, well, myself when I was in college. I was studying literature, and writing a lot of poetry. I complained about the constricts of conventional forms of poetry, like the sonnet. I pointed to the free verse of Milton, and idolized e.e. cummings. (Man, that guy didn’t even use capitals in his name. That’s art, baby.) And I was writing a lot of bad (really bad) poetry.

Along the way, I learned that the constricts of conventional forms are great teachers. By limiting what you’re able to do, they make you a better writer. Milton wrote in free verse only after writing sonnet after sonnet after sonnet — and getting really, really good at writing verses that rhymed. Form is ultimately freeing, opening up possibilities you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Back to film. I watch a lot of films that try to eschew the constricts of storytelling, and 95% of the time, I wish they wouldn’t. It is possible to make a great film without telling a story (the prime example that pops to mind is Beau Travail) but it’s really, really rare, and most films that attempt to climb that summit fail – and fail hard.

Which brings us to Mr. Turner, the latest film from Mike Leigh, who has never had much interest in storytelling. I find his movies very hit-and-miss: some of them (like Happy-Go-Lucky and Secrets & Lies) I really enjoy; others (like Vera Drake) I really hated. Leigh is famous for operating without a script; he finds actors he trusts, gives them the outlines of a scene or a situation, and lets them improvise their way through it. I guess this could be called operating outside the constricts of plot, but I think in his best films, his actors stumble across a story in their character explorations and thus supply what the director is lacking.

But because(like Vera Drake) Mr. Turner is a biopic, Leigh isn’t able to do that. Timothy Spall, great actor though he is, can’t just stumble upon the character of the great British landscape painter. There are beats that need to be hit, information that needs to be communicated. There is a story that needs to be told. Unfortunately, Leigh steadfastly refuses to tell that story, or a story of any kind. Indeed, there are points in Mr. Turner where it seems like a story is about to develop, and then the film stubbornly steers away from those moments.

What’s left when your director steadfastly refuses to tell a story? A series of barely connected scenes. And that’s what Mr. Turner is. There are at least a dozen scenes in this film that seem to have no relationship with anything else in the film. There are another set of scenes that really ought to convey important information about this historical figure, but fail to do so (I had to look up his daughters, after the two completely befuddling scenes with them in them.) Nothing comes together. No bigger picture comes into focus. We watch this movie for three hours — which feels like even longer — and come away knowing almost as little about its main character as we did when we started.

There are some nice things about Mr. Turner. Timothy Spall delivers a very good performance; it’s amazing the number of things he can communicate through a varied series of grunts and growls. I don’t know why he’s crying in the scene with the prostitute, but his performance in that scene is powerful, anyway. It is an excellent performance; I wonder if Mr. Spall is disappointed his director couldn’t work it into a better film.

It’s also a very pretty, very painterly film. Hardly three minutes goes by without some sort of composition that resembles a painting; often one of Mr. Turner’s paintings. There are lots of pretty pictures in this movie.

I can’t recommend this film. I love story. There’s no story here. And three hours is a long, long time to listen to Mr. Spall grunt and mutter.


Random Notes: 

For those who have seen the movie — A short list of the scenes I mentioned, that seem to have nothing to do with the rest of the film

1. the scene with the piano player.

2. the scene with the natural historian.

3. the scene with the art admirer that ends with a joke(?) about kidney pie.

4. the scene with the prostitute.


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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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