The Most Genius British Genius Movie

This year’s Oscar nominations contain three (!) biopics about British geniuses: Mr. Turner, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything. The one that isn’t up for best picture just might be the best.

Both The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are anchored by strong lead performances, by Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne. But both films can be seen as depicting their protagonists’ social and physical challenges — not to mention towering intellectual accomplishments — as plot points on the road to satisfying, crowd-pleasing and, in the case of The Imitation Game, emotionally (and perhaps historically) dishonest conclusions.

The year’s British genius biopic that succeeds most at conveying its subject’s life, times, and work in all their majesty and sorrow sits not in the Best Picture category, but in Best Cinematography. Mr. Turner, directed by Mike Leigh (Naked, Topsy-Turvy) and starring Timothy Spall and Dorothy Atkinson, narrates the adult life of 19th-century British marine-scape painter J.M.W. Turner. Though Leigh’s film covers the last three or four decades of Turner’s life, thus violating the first rule of film critic Scott Tobias’s catechism for successful film biopics — 1) eat a slice, not the whole pie (a la Ava DuVernay’s Selma or Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) — Mr. Turner succeeds marvelously at the other four: 2) show, don’t tell; 3) do it for the right reasons; 4) find a complementary style; 5) find the saint in the asshole, the asshole in the saint.

The film opens with a tour-de-force shot of the Dutch countryside: a painterly composition of radiant blues, oranges, and grays emanating from a slowly rising sun, refracted through the cloudy sky and providing an early-morning warmth to the flat land beneath. A mill stands majestically in the background, a glimmering stream divides the frame diagonally, and two peasant women, bedecked in long skirts and pointed white hats, laugh and chat at the beginning of another day of hard work. The image, sublime, pastoral, and Romantic, calls to mind Jacob van Ruisdael’s The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede (1668 – c.1670), a painting art historian John Walsh recently discussed in his free, Friday-afternoon lecture series at the Yale University Art Gallery.

The camera pans a little to the left, and we see our hero: the painter, Mr. Turner, outlined in a dark shadow and standing stalwart and observant, sketching the enormity of what he sees.

This opening sequence manages to convey the impressionistic style of Turner’s paintings, the natural splendor that inspired him, and the artistic tradition he revered, all without reductive exposition or dependence on a traditional, plot-driven narrative structure. For this film is not even about the Netherlands, nor is it about peasant life. It is about a brusque painter from 19th-century London, a man with little use for words but an extensive vocabulary of grunts; a difficult and sometimes repellant man with an eye for beauty and a devotion to art. The film unfolds over the next two-and-a-half hours as a testament to the revolutionary effect that art can have on one’s perception of the world, especially when those images are filtered through the mind and brush of someone as talented and uncompromising as J.M.W. Turner was.

Photographed by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dick Pope, so many scenes are played out against a beautiful maelstrom of light and color, a sky that consumes the frame and inspires its subject as well as its audience. But this film is also about a particular, contradictory man whose actions inspire love and hate, joy and pain. Mr. Turner is not necessarily interested in the hard facts of Turner’s biography. It does not follow a particular chronology of events, and therefore evades critiques of historical manipulation or callous simplification.

Rather, this film seeks to capture the aesthetic truths of the life of a particular artist; the emotional truths of the relationships of a man who held within him both the beautiful and the brutal. Mr. Turner is as much a work of art as the paintings created by the man that inspired the film. And that is saying something, considering that those paintings are some of the most evocative and transcendent in the history of visual art.

Mr. Turner is currently playing at the Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas in downtown New Haven.

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