'Mr. Turner': What the Critics Are Saying

'Mr. Turner,' Mike Leigh (Competition)

Four-time Cannes competition veteran (and 1996 Palme d’Or winner for Secrets & Lies), Leigh returns to the Croisette (after being snubbed by the French festival for Vera Drake) with arguably the most compelling of the many biopics on offer at this year's fest. Regular Leigh collaborator Timothy Spall stars as the British Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner. Lesley Manville co-stars in the feature, which Sony Pictures Classics picked up for the U.S. ahead of its Cannes premiere. (Sales: Sunray Films)

Timothy Spall portrays British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh's buzzy biopic

Mr. Turner, currently in limited release, has Timothy Spall grunting and painting while portraying British landscape artist J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh's buzzy biopic, roughly spanning the last 25 years of Turner's life. Also featuring Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey, the Sony Pictures Classics release also pairs the director with his oft-collaborator, director of photography Dick Pope.

Read what top critics are saying about Mr. Turner:

The Hollywood Reporter's Leslie Felperin notes that Leigh "has managed to conjure largely uneventful, if scrupulously well-researched, data into a luminous and moving film ... [that] manages to illuminate that nexus between biography and art with elegant understatement." Though "reported budget limitations prevented Leigh from covering Turner’s career-changing visits to Europe, especially Venice, the narrower focus on Turner in various domestic settings at home in England actually enriches the drama, ... played out in self-contained, single-setting scenes that nevertheless resonate with each other as the film unfolds." Additionally, "Pope and Leigh succeed gloriously in finding a way to suggest the numinous quality of Turner’s work, his unique use of light and other elements to suggest, as one character puts it, the ways in which everything in nature is connected. To co-opt a notion much loved by Romantic artists, everything here is organically coherent, even if it was shot on digital, that most inorganic of media."

Read more New York Film Fest: Mike Leigh, Timothy Spall Talk Portraying the Problematic Painter in 'Mr. Turner'

The film is "anchored by a masterful performance by Spall in a role he was born to play, ... [and] Leigh’s ability to draw out Turner’s soft, capacious underbelly, visible in his easy rapport with Sophia, or the way he listens keenly to Mr. Booth’s remembrances of working on slave ships, intelligence that would feed into one his greatest paintings, 'Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On.' ... The accumulation of these miniaturist details, specific right down to the way Turner grunts and waddles, that Leigh and Spall build up their layered, faceted portrait of capricious and curmudgeonly man whose personality bears a striking resemblance to the director’s own public persona."

The New York Times' A. O. Scott calls it "a mighty work of critical imagination, a loving, unsentimental portrait of a rare creative soul. But even as it celebrates a glorious painter and illuminates the sources of his pictures with startling clarity and insight, the movie patiently and thoroughly demolishes more than a century’s worth of mythology about what art is and how artists work. ... Leigh makes it all look newly painted, fresh and strange." Turner is "played with blunt, brutish, grunting delicacy by Spall" and viewers, "thanks to the exquisite, painterly cinematography of Pope, see the world as Turner saw it."

The New Yorker's David Denby sees it as "a harsh, strange, but stirring movie," and also notes that "Leigh and the cinematographer, Dick Pope, show people looking at the paintings more than they show the paintings themselves, which was wise—the work doesn’t reproduce well onscreen. What the filmmakers can do, however, is re-create, with hard clarity, what it was that Turner saw." Of the cast, " All the men in Mr. Turner bluster at one another, as if they were playing themselves onstage, but Spall outdoes everyone in heroic oddity and temper."

Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan says it "pushes hard against the strictures of conventional narrative and ends up pulling us into its world and capturing us completely. ... Mr. Turner so immerses, envelopes and involves us in the artist's world that we come away feeling we know what it was like to live in his times, to know him and to be him." Alongside Spall, "because of the intense way Leigh and his cast create character, a process that can involve months of improvisation for even the smallest of roles, even those actors with little screen time make equally vivid impressions, also an essential element in involving us in the proceedings."

Read more Cinematography Roundtable: Roger Deakins and 5 Other Top DPs on Angelina Jolie's Directing Style, Shooting Through Hurricanes and Film vs. Digital

The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw echoes, "What a glorious film this is, richly and immediately enjoyable, hitting its satisfying stride straight away. It's funny and visually immaculate; it combines domestic intimacy with an epic sweep and has a lyrical, mysterious quality that perfumes every scene, whether tragic or comic. ... Every scene in this film is expertly managed; every comic line and funny moment adroitly presented and every performance given with intelligence and love. It is another triumph for Leigh and for Spall."