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Mr. Turner

Timothy Spall hems, haws, and grunts his way to genius as the British painter J.M.W. Turner.

Mike Leigh (United Kingdom, Special Presentations)
stars 3andahalf9

Timothy Spall deservedly nabbed the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his grunting, harumphing performance as famed English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s typically smart but uncharacteristically beautiful Mr. Turner. An underrated character actor, Spall shines in this rare lead turn, which humanizes the artist by representing him as a full-bodied, husky sort, long on vision and short on the words to articulate it.

As strong as Spall is, Leigh’s film seems at times to be doing too much with too little follow-through. Its fleeting insights into the Royal Academy and the politics of the 19th-century landscape art scene, for example, feel a bit undernourished, partly because they are so counter to the film’s naturalistic aesthetic. Instead we’re offered experts’ dull expository accounts of the art we can see perfectly well for ourselves. As with Leigh’s best work, though, the film evokes the physical weight of its subject’s world in a refreshingly candid, tactile sort of way, bringing you as close to Turner the man as you’d want to be.

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