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Mr. Turner

(2014) **** R
150 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Mike Leigh. Cast: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Marion Bailey, Dorothy Atkinson.


One Old Master deserves another. And so it is that one of the finest films of 2014 finds English filmmaker Mike Leigh taking as his subject English painter J.M.W. Turner. Mr. Turner, like Leigh's equally sublime Topsy-Turvy, revives an era in astonishing, delicate detail, then moves through the space with a documentarian's eye. Leigh takes Turner out of art history and puts him back in the world.

Leigh's role as cultural historian more commonly focuses on contemporary life in lower-middle-class English 'hoods (Happy-Go-Lucky, Secrets & Lies, Naked, Life is Sweet), but his obvious fascination with and affection for his fellow artists (perhaps especially the grouchy ones) and their pains are evident. Though Leigh isn't likely quite as cantankerous as Turner, he's well qualified to see Turner for his faults as well as his genius, to understand both and guide his cast through a well-honed process of improvisatory rehearsal to arrive at life's reflection caught on camera.

Leigh opens on a beautiful landscape with river and windmill, and soon enough, we see the man regarding it with a thoughtful scowl. This is what passes for peacefulness for Turner (Timothy Spall), who only seems truly happy in the merry company of his beloved father (Paul Jesson). A coarse, grunting grump, Turner nevertheless remains consistently, quietly, compulsively driven to paint his landscapes and his seascapes, and to perfect his form through thoughtful regard and restless experimentation.

Mr. Turner is as much about a way of viewing as it is about Mr. Turner, and it's fascinating to enjoy Leigh's entirely distinct viewpoint and technique in dialogue with Turner's. Leigh is a dedicated, unblinking observer not of nature but of human nature, and he allows us to draw our own conclusions about what he shows us of Turner's topsy-turvy interactions with his world and his peers: his deep love of his father but his denial of his own illegitimate children, his sensitivity to nature and his brusqueness with people (including his sexual exploitation of women and disinterest in marriage), his total dedication to art and his iconoclasm within the English art world, dominated by the standing-on-ceremony Royal Academy of Arts.

Leigh's narrative approach tends to the episodic, with little interest in conventional "drama" and every interest in nuances of behavior and meaning, applied with gentle brushstrokes. Just as Turner had a penchant for moving incognito, Leigh wants to be a fly on the wall of history as he time-travels through Turner's last quarter-century of life, up to and a bit beyond his "famous last words." The collage of scenes accumulates Turner's character, from moments of great emotional impact to those of passing fancy, like Turner's fascinated encounter with a camera: wondrous new technology destined to evolve into the vehicle of Mr. Turner itself.

Turner has been oft described as "painting with light," terminology also applied to the art of cinematography. Accordingly, Leigh's right-hand man Dick Pope delivers the most stunning cinematic paintings of the year with Mr. Turner, which seems likely to collect the Best Cinematography Oscar. Less likely to make it to the podium, but no less deserving, is Spall, a career character actor and Leigh vet who inhabits Turner with a rare totality of presence, with a depth that insists that we love Turner, despite his many warts, for being so thoroughly, unapologetically himself; for being redeemed by love and vocation; for having, like Leigh and Spall, the soul of an artist.

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Aspect ratios: 2.39:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 5/5/2015

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony does right by one of the best films of 2014 in a Blu-ray special edition. The hi-def digital-to-digital transfer ably handles the year's best cinematography: the lovely evocation of Turner's worlds on and off the canvas excels in rich hues and bracingly sharp detail, especially in texture of materials and anatomy. Anchored by a rock-solid black level, the pretty picture loses nothing in translation to disc. In the audio department, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix doesn't miss a beat in its clarity and immersive soundscape. Discrete placement of sound effects in the mix strongly but subtly evokes period and place while clearly prioritizing dialogue and giving a full treatment to music when present.

The substantial bonus features kick off with an excellent audio commentary with writer/Director Mike Leigh. Leigh's an old hand at discussing his own work, and his annotation here will certainly add to enthusiasts' appreciation of the film. Leigh discusses his approach to the filmmaking, locations, the actors' work and, of course, his understanding of the artist and the paintings central to Mr. Turner.

While the title "The Cinematic Palette: The Cinematography of Mr. Turner" (16:45, HD) would seem to indicate a featurette focused entirely on the work of DP Dick Pope, this featurette in fact amounts to a behind-the-scenes doc, with B-roll of the production and a look at on-set techniques and artistry in a variety of departments, including costumes.

"The Many Colours of Mr. Turner" (31:50, HD) expands the discussion of filmmaking methodology from concept to execution, looking at research, design, and preparations, including Timothy Spall's painting lessons.

Rounding out the disc are deleted scene "Billiards" (1:10, HD) and the "Mr. Turner Theatrical Trailer" (2:11, HD).


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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