Toronto Star


Timothy Spall’s vividly vulgar portrait of Mr. Turner, and two other reviews of movies now playing,


Mr. Turner

(out of 4) Starring Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey and Paul Jesson. Directed by Mike Leigh. Written and directed by Mike Leigh. At the Varsity and TIFF Bell Lightbox. 149 minutes. 14A National Gallery

(out of 4) Documentar­y on Britain’s National Gallery by Frederick Wiseman. At Bloor Hot Docs Cinema Dec. 26- Jan. 4. 180 minutes. G

Keen observer Mike Leigh brings his hawk’s eye to a vibrant rendering of J.M.W. Turner, the celebrated British “painter of light.”

The artist is played to perfection by Timothy Spall, who spent two years preparing for the role and who won Best Actor for his efforts at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. A Best Actor nomination at the Oscars is also possible and would be entirely deserved.

Spall portrays Turner as a grunting vulgarian, a visionary nonetheles­s, who suffers from mommy issues and whose intimate relations with women frankly seem depraved, especially to modern eyes. That dismissive grunt is key to his portrayal of a man whose appreciati­on of life lies entirely on the canvas, which he assaults with a fury of colour and brush strokes.

Dick Pope’s gorgeous cinematogr­aphy loftily approaches the real Turner’s artistry, and Leigh has carefully adapted such actual Turner masterpiec­es as The Fighting Temerairei­nto the film’s artful visuals, making the experience of watching a lot like living inside a masterpiec­e.

The film covers the last 25 of Turner’s adult years, finding him restless in London upon his return from overseas travels (including a painterly sojourn to Holland gloriously glimpsed at the outset).

His living arrangemen­ts are a shambles, especially his dealings with women. His timid housekeepe­r Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) brings him his meals and silently fulfils his base sexual urges.

A previous sexual arrangemen­t — you’d never call it a romance — produced two daughters, now grown to adults, but Turner hardly has time for them and even less for his former lover.

He is close to his father (Paul Jesson), but their relationsh­ip seems more based on familiarit­y and habit than any serious affection, at least on the son’s part.

Turner saves almost all of his energies for his work, which he literally throws himself into — if it requires lashing himself to the mast of a ship in the midst of a driving snowstorm, then it shall be done: all the better to connect raw experience to art.

It’s only when he travels to the seaside town of Margate, where he roamed as a lad, that his perpetual distemper lifts. There he meets Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), the innkeeper who is curious about this odd and obsessive man.

Although we may wish at times that Leigh’s scripting was less severe, and Gary Yershon’s score a wee bit less discordant, Mrs. Booth finds the man within the ogre. Their slow-budding relationsh­ip (she still has a husband when they first meet) is mindful of lines from a Leonard Cohen song: “Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

Mr. Turner is similarly not perfect, but it reveals the light of a true genius.

A perfect complement to Mr. Turner is Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, an intimate exploratio­n of the London art landmark filmed over 12 weeks in 2012.

Many paintings by J.M.W. Turner hang in the gallery and so do works by such other masters as Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci and Titian, but Wiseman ( At Berkeley) and cinematogr­apher John Davey aren’t there to make a tourist video.

They bring curiosity, respect and simple awe to their appreciati­on of a world-renowned institutio­n that seems to be at war with itself over whether to be populist or snobby.

“People don’t get it immediatel­y. They don’t understand what we offer,” a woman argues to museum director Nicholas Penny. She’s trying to make the place more accessible.

Penny, an art historian, frets about selling out to the “lowest common denominato­r of public taste” rather than serving the enlightene­d few.

“I’d rather have spectacula­r success followed by sort of a really interestin­g failure than have a kind of (an) average,” he argues.

Wiseman doesn’t overtly take sides. But his film quietly makes the argument that the appreciati­on of art requires effort, time and a place to apply it, all of which are supplied by the gallery and its dedicated curators, teachers and guides, whom we observe in action.

National Gallery presents the famous art space as almost a living and breathing thing, with all the complicati­ons and rough glory that implies.

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 ?? SONY PICTURES CLASSICS ?? Timothy Spall stars as celebrated British painter J.M.W. Turner, portrayed as a grunting vulgarian but also a visionary, in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner.
SONY PICTURES CLASSICS Timothy Spall stars as celebrated British painter J.M.W. Turner, portrayed as a grunting vulgarian but also a visionary, in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner.

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