I’m increasingly impatient with long films; 90 minutes feels just right, but anything over two hours has to really try hard to justify itself. The Great Beauty, weighing in at 142 minutes, never felt long to me, with its superb visuals, soundtrack, characters and performances all working together to carry its lazily-meandering story along; when this film ended I could have watched it from the beginning again straight away, because it easily earns its length. On the other side you have Peter Jackson’s gruelling Hobbit films, masterpieces in padding; of the 161 minutes of The Desolation of Smaug, you could probably cut out about 150.
Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner is two and a half hours long, and it doesn’t quite earn it. Maybe it’d be better for a sleepy Sunday afternoon on the sofa, but in a cinema with seats of dubious quality I found the watch-checking kicked in after an hour, and I’d run out of comfortable ways to arrange my legs not long after that.
It’s not that it’s a boring film as such, it’s just…sedate; a beautiful film with rich, chewy dialogue, but not a particularly gripping one. Timothy Spall’s performance, brilliant though it is — he’s an astonishingly visceral figure, incommunicative, anti-social, all grunt and spit and rutting — isn’t enough to fill the length. There’s no conflict with anybody else, and the few colourful figures in Turner’s life — chiefly Haydon and Ruskin — act more as broad comic relief, orbiting Turner more than interacting with him.
Turner’s relations with women seem to come more from convenience than genuine affection; it’s only Turner’s relationship with his father that has any depth, a relationship that’s touchingly portrayed without any of the daddy issues that plague the father/son relationships of Hollywood. The affection they show each other is real and charming, and the difference in Turner after his father’s death is noticeable, the showmanship and theatrics of his art viewings lost and his connection to the world almost gone with it.
I’d have loved a shorter film focused entirely on Turner and his father, or a film of this length with a bit more drama and fleshed-out supporting characters. As it is, if you can be swept away on visuals alone, you might get something out of Mr. Turner. If you need a bit more, it’s better watched somewhere where you can pause for a tea break or two.