Lost Among Europeans

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Naturalism in film

Recently I went to see the film Mr. Turner. I had high expectations, what with the positive reviews and my interest in the painter Turner, from my teenage years attempting to learn watercolor painting. What a sore disappointment. I walked out of the theater frustrated at having wasted two and a half hours. I like naturalistic films, and I don’t require a lot of plot or dialog to enjoy movies, so I wasn’t getting impatient with Mr. Turner. I thought something would emerge by the end. Alas, what you get is pretty much surface. When you read in reviews that the film’s titular character communicates by grunting, take that literally—he barely mutters more than five sentences. And calling those grunts communication is being generous. It felt as though watching BBC’s Planet Earth documentaries with David Attenborough’s narrative turned off.

I compare Mr. Turner with Boyhood, which can also be considered a naturalistic film. More so, even, as Linklater didn’t set out with a finished screenplay, and went along, reacting to the evolution of his actors across 12 years. By commercial-movie standards, nothing much happens in Boyhood. Yet we get good dialogs, views into the motivations and tastes of the characters, and the feeling that we’ve been there with them. I’m all for realism, but realism, by itself, is not enough to make a film worth my while.