We watched two fairly recent films in a row — I know, shocking, right?
MR. TURNER suddenly became the film everybody in Britain had to see, and our local Filmhouse did a roaring trade. I think the success was similar to that of TV movie The Gathering Storm — you have a well-known actor playing a well-known figure who is redolent of Britishness, and it somehow becomes a perfect storm. The Albert Finney Churchill impersonation was held together by a strong story. MR. TURNER had lovely cinematography — more gorgeous than I would ever have guessed Mike Leigh of his cinematographer to be capable of — begging the question why they don’t let their contemporary films look beautiful — but no story at all.
What, in fact, is MR. TURNER about? The extremely depressing final shot seems to argue that it’s about, at heart, the painter’s exploitative relationship with his housekeeper and mistress (Dorothy Atkinson, with some striking physical comedy work). It might be about the fact that each was the most important person in the others’ life, a thing which was never acknowledged for reasons of class. But if that’s what the film’s about, we’re faced with the problem that a good 80% of the action takes place far removed from this spine of the story. I liked Turner Snr., but his declining health is a different narrative altogether. Turner’s relationship with the cash-strapped Mr. Haydon has nothing to do with anything else. Turner’s suffering at the hands of the critics, who are unreceptive to his increasingly impressionistic work, would seem like an important element in a biography of the subject, but emerge very late in the runtime and vanish again, having had no certain impact on anything.
As usual with Leigh, a better approach I suppose is to simply ask if the scenes are interesting and not worry whether they are all necessary or add up to a coherent whole. TOPSY TURVY is the only other Leigh film I’ve both seen and liked, and it gains structural rigour by being about a theatrical production. It then jettisons that rigour by trundling on past its natural ending for about half an hour, leading into Gilbert & Sullivan’s next production. What Leigh gains from this is a deeper portrayal of the theatrical life, a never-ending cycle of fresh projects that must be laboriously brought into being. What he loses is a definable shape, a clear arc that lets the audience understand where they are in the story at any given time — most films follow these structural rules simply to reassure the viewer with a familiar set of beats. I don’t think he’s necessarily wrong to reject that.
In the case of MR. TURNER, a lot of the scenes are interesting. There’s some pleasing rhythmic interplay, some outrageous hamming (Joshua McGuire as Ruskin revives the grand old British tradition of the silly ass) and the grunting, shambling figure of Timothy Spall is curiously compelling. For some reason, the movie feels the need to punish us with some unpleasant sex and a horrible ending. That’s where I can’t go along with it. If it’s just a bag of bits loosely themed around a famous artist’s life, it doesn’t earn the right to be upsetting and/or icky.
THE MONUMENTS MEN is an equally handsome film, from handsome director/star George Clooney, who continues to show promise but doesn’t quite resolve his skilled team, charismatic cast, and intriguing subject matter into a really good movie. The music persistently tries to persuade us we’re watching THE GREAT ESCAPE, trampling all over the actual tone of the scenes, which are often quite a bit darker than a jaunty march would suggest.
Not too dark, though — a consistent and strange error of Clooney’s directing career is the allowing of scenes devoid of drama to make it through the development process. No tension or conflict, just chumminess. Decidedly odd when you have movies about the McCarthy witch hunts, a supposed CIA assassin and game show host (I admit I haven’t seen the ones about politics and football). I think because the story focuses on the good guys, who are all in agreement more or less, the potential conflicts with the Germans, the Russians and the American brass who don’t see the point of risking lives for paintings and sculptures, get fairly short shrift. As an actor, Clooney ought to know that you don’t have a source of tension in a scene you don’t have anything, but like a lot of enthusiastic amateurs he keeps ignoring what he does know.
I think there’s also too much intercutting, and the script is sloppy in its willingness to feed us information any old how: a narration, letters home, radio broadcasts. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov genuinely don’t seem to understand what drama is, or they think it’s OK to suspend it for minutes at a time while everybody stands around and tries to show how much they care.
But that all makes the film sound terrible — in fact, because the cast are all so affable and the basic set-up is intriguing, it’s a sometimes frustrating but generally diverting watch. It’s just not everything it might have been. Clooney is smart, talented as an actor, has good taste, and I’m certain he’s a nice guy — reluctance to allow drama to really boil over is often a trait of nice people — he just needs to take the gloves off, I think.