Mr. Turner | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published January 28, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

I'm prompted by writer-director Mike Leigh's sublime portrait of the 19th-century painter J.M.W. Turner to offer an observation or two concerning critics as much as film artists. The first observation is that we've heard a lot lately about how this or that historical drama strayed from the facts to fit its story into the conventional format of a Hollywood awards contender.

How many reviews have we read in which the writer appears more concerned about what got left out of a given picture — or reimagined, compressed or otherwise tweaked — than what wound up on the screen? Selma is the greatest victim of this narrative nitpicking at the moment, but hardly the only one.

So here's Leigh's challenge: Spend two and a half hours watching a biographical drama in which nothing has been goosed or jazzed up. See the film he made about an English Romantic painter without romanticizing said artist in the least. Give your attention to this uncomely curmudgeon whose own biographer complained, "Turner is a very uninteresting man to write about." And then see how you like it when a filmmaker sticks to the facts.

I, for one, loved it. The experience won't be everyone's cup of tea, but I found it illuminating, moving and masterful. Frequent Leigh collaborator Timothy Spall creates an unforgettable character, a grunting, snorting frog of a man. His Turner might be mistaken on a London street for a middle-aged clerk, yet he just happens to be the most visionary painter of his age. Forget every cliché in the tortured-artist book. Turner is neither starving (quite the contrary) nor misunderstood. He's a rock star of the art world, rubs elbows with the aristocracy and is acknowledged by his peers as a wizard able to transform pigment into light.

The masterstroke of Leigh's movie is letting us into its subject's head. Dick Pope's inspired cinematography suggests not merely the world Turner saw but the way he saw it. Scene after scene opens with a long shot of the sun and clouds working their magic on sky and sea before panning to a solitary figure who is jotting it all down in his notebook.

In conveying the atmospherics of, for example, a stroll on the shore at Margate, Pope foreshadows the astonishing leaps in form and color that Turner makes a scene or two later. The artist's work anticipated abstract expressionism a century before anyone would use those words. One can portray Turner as a genius without pretending that he wasn't a complicated person capable of cruelty, or that his life was exemplary. It's a long story, and Leigh tells it with a beautiful rawness. No secrets. No lies. No tweaks.

The other comment I want to make concerns the New York Observer critic Rex Reed. You may recall the furor he caused by calling Melissa McCarthy "tractor-sized" and a "hippo" in his review of 2013's Identity Thief. It wasn't the first time he'd gotten personal when he should've been professional. Well, Reed evidently learned little from that episode, because he's put his foot in his mouth again, closing his Mr. Turner review with the offensive assertion that its star is "too repulsive to watch for 150 minutes."

Now, I realize Reed has a right to his opinion. Freedom of expression is much in the news lately, whether the medium is a movie or a magazine. So I support his right to say any stupid thing he wants. I just don't support him and am frankly ashamed to be in the same profession.

Performers are human beings with feelings. Reed's insulting remarks serve no purpose in the critical analysis of their work. They're completely uncalled for. Reed's dismissal would not be.