Mike Leigh’s dazzling biopic of one of Britain’s most celebrated and controversial artists, JMW Turner, in the last 25 years of his life is a masterpiece. Timothy Spall’s magnificent, multi-faceted, vivid portrayal of Turner as a seething mass of contradiction won him Best Actor at Cannes. He is eccentric grunting, blunt, uncouth, uncaring to his mistress and children. Yet he is a sensitive artist, well read, a lover of poetry and opera. Spall fills the screen like a whirlwind, even recreating Turner’s canvasses (he spent two years learning to paint for the role). Colour sings from the screen. Turner’s visionary, impressionistic landscapes outrage the establishment. He is seized with the new – the coming of steam to power ships and trains. The Victorian era was the age of exploration and discovery in the natural sciences and he embraces their potential – even the newly invented camera – in a way his peers do not.
Inspired by the wide, open skies of the east coast, Turner settled down with Margate landlady Mrs Booth (warm and buxom Marion Bailey, Leigh’s partner), who is at first ignorant of his true identity. She looked after him until his death. Leigh creates the Victorian period with stunning visuals and in the cadences of the language. It’s an extraordinary film that brings to life an extraordinary artist, warts and all. Seeing him portrayed in such a human way makes his artistic genius seem even more extraordinary.
Mr Turner is showing on Oct 10th & 11th at the 58th BFI London Film Festival