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Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner”: Cannes’ First Masterpiece

Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner": Cannes' First Masterpiece

The festival gods taketh away, and then they giveth: Hours after Cannes opener “Grace of Monaco” was pelted with one-star reviews, Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” starring Timothy Spall as the British painter, is being showered with five out of five, hailed as a masterpiece and as Leigh’s greatest film ever. Even chalking that last claim up to a touch of festival fever, the notices are thrilling, setting high expectations for the film’s American release by Sony Pictures Classics in what, based on these reviews, you can count on being the thick of awards season.

Reviews of “Mr. Turner”

Guy Lodge, HitFix

Neither a sprawling cradle-to-grave life study nor a disciplined examination of a specific creative stage, “Mr. Turner” unfolds with Leigh’s customarily discursive, episodic ease — which will, as ever, frustrate some and delight many. It’s a robust film that could only have been made by an artist as practiced and assured as his subject.

Robbie Collin, Telegraph

In shape, “Mr. Turner” is very much like “Topsy-Turvy,” Leigh’s superb, under-seen 1999 film about the comic-opera writers W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, set during the writing of “The Mikado.” But this is an even more ambitious work about the making of art, in which the process is not just shown as an almighty, if often very funny, strain, but something that, when done correctly, and with the stars aligned just so, can bear the artist past death and into history.

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice

May be Leigh’s finest picture, or, at the very least, a picture different from any other he’s made. Leigh, Spall, and cinematographer Dick Pope — who borrows lots of lighting tricks from Vermeer and Ingres and even Turner himself, to glorious effect — have gently atomized Turner’s character, breaking it into small, potent fragments that affect us in ways we don’t see coming.

Nicholas Barber, BBC Culture

Right from the opening shot, Mr Turner is a consistently exquisite collection of screen-filling vistas, many of them shot in the pale, late-afternoon sunshine. They’d merit a place on any gallery wall.

Mike D’Angelo, Dissolve

Near the end of the film, Turner has a daguerreotype taken, asking endless questions of the photographer and concluding, after hearing the replies, “I think I’m finished.” The existence of this exacting yet lyrical film — and of cinema itself, for that matter, with its blend of realism and abstraction — demonstrates how right and how wrong he was, at the same time.

Peter Labuza, Film Stage

In many ways, the confounding work Leigh has made here rivals “Barry Lyndon” — partly in aesthetic goals, though mostly through its ability to elide any confirmed meaning. For running two-and-a-half hours, the conversations and gestures in “Mr. Turner” are packed with such intense thoughts (while never taking on a sense of grand proportions) that attempting to take it all in on a single viewing can prove overwhelming. Contemplating the sublime, especially one with such deceptive crevasses, may require a lifetime.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

A first-rate match of director and subject. Leigh’s process once again yields a compassionate narrative in which subtle glances and asides tell the story as much as the plot itself. 
Leslie Felperin, Hollywood Reporter
Leigh has managed to conjure largely uneventful, if scrupulously well-researched, data into a luminous and moving film about one of Britain’s greatest artists. Anchored by a masterful performance by Timothy Spall in a role he was born to play, “Mr. Turner” manages to illuminate that nexus between biography and art with elegant understatement.

Oliver Lyttleton, the Playlist

“Mr. Turner,” though not without flaws, is something of a twilight culmination of Leigh’s work, and very much one in which the filmmaker turns his lens on himself, as is so often the case when directors make movies about artists. Might be the director’s richest, and certainly ranks with “Secrets & Lies,” “Naked” and “Topsy-Turvy” as one of his very best.

Scott Foundas, Variety

An ecstatically beautiful and exquisitely detailed portrait of the artist as a cantankerous middle-aged man whose brilliance with the brush overshadows his sometimes appalling lack of social graces. 

Peter Bradshaw, Guardian

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.

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

It’s a marvel both in its presentation of a very specific individual in his particular world and as an examination of the demanding power of the creative impulse. 

Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily

Works at once as a warts-and-all portrait of the painter and his circle, and as a large-scale evocation of Victorian England. The film brings its period so energetically alive that the viewer comes to inhabit Turner’s age as intimately as we’ve inhabited the everyday Britain of Leigh’s contemporary films.

Geoffrey MacNab, Independent

This may be 19th Century costume fare but it is made with the same precise attention to its protagonists’ yearnings and comic foibles as its director’s contemporary dramas.

Dave Calhoun, Time Out

As ever with Leigh, “Mr Turner” addresses the big questions with small moments. It’s an extraordinary film, all at once strange, entertaining, thoughtful and exciting.

Craig Skinner, Film Divider

Whilst the film is often fascinating it does also drag at times and the final thirty minutes are even something of a chore as we head towards the obvious wrapping up of loose ends and towards Turner’s death.

Jamie Graham, Total Film

A work that mirrors its subject’s renderings of the ocean in depth, turbulence and heart-stopping beauty. It’s a film comprised of astonishingly handsome images — Dick Pope’s photography demands that old cliché of hanging frames on walls — and it mixes wicked humor with profound sorrow. 

John Bleasdale, CineVue

Leigh is interested in warts and all, the spit and filth, rag-and-bone shop nature of the creation of art. In arguably a career-topping performance, Timothy Spall plays the cantankerous painter as a complex, grunting, snarling and utterly single-minded creature. 

David Sexton, Evening Standard

Painterly, Dickensian, an astonishingly detailed and richly enjoyable recreation of the era, but one that’s also immediately familiar as another slice of Mike Leigh himself, so class-conscious, awkward, affectionate and bolshie. It’s an act of recognition as well as imagination: a self-portrait too.

Rebecca Cope, Harper’s Bazaar

Wonderfully acted, and needless to say beautifully shot (several scenes could be Turner masterpieces themselves) it’s a fantastic film and a real highlight of Cannes so far.

Jason Gorber, Twitch

A carefully constructed film, part performance piece and part biopic, that continues Leigh’s tradition of providing rich and complex characters drawn upon the canvas of a greater tale.

Nikola Grozdanovich, Way Too Indie

While it never feels as close as his modern day takes of ordinary woes (“Another Year” most recently), “Mr. Turner” is yet another exemplary work of art from a modern day master craftsman.

Michal Oleszczyk, RogerEbert.com

One of the strangest biopics imaginable: a private, nearly plotless take on the life of a man whose passions were all intensely inward.

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