Mike Leigh’s dazzling biopic of one of Britain’s most celebrated and controversial artists, JMW Turner, is a masterpiece which creates the role which earned Timothy Spall the Best Actor award at Cannes.
The Shock Of The New by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner depicts one of Britain’s greatest artists as a seething mass of unresolved contradictions. Timothy Spall’s multi-faceted, vivid portrayal of him is superb, a worthy award winner. His Turner is an eccentric grunting, blunt bear of a man, uncouth and selfish in his personal relationships, yet a sensitive artist, well read, a lover of poetry and opera and with a natural intellect. A genius who believed he was a man of destiny, to the end of his life Turner was single-mindedly obsessed with creating the greatest art – visiting a prostitute, he ends up sketching her instead. Yet he could also be generous, giving money to needy, unsuccessful artists. In contrast to the other artists of the day, he was a revolutionary, ahead of his time, moving from a classical style to his visionary, impressionistic marine landscapes and sunsets which were ridiculed at first by conventional critics and the public.
The film takes us through the last 25 years of Turner’s life to his moving last words on his deathbed – “The sun is king”. By now, he is a successful artist, living with his ailing, elderly father (Paul Jesson), who acts as his manservant, and his devoted housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), whom he exploits sexually. He has an estranged mistress, daughters and granddaughter whom he ignores. He outrages his establishment peers in the art world by his choice of subjects and his visceral painting techniques. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are not amused. All his life, he obsessively observes, draws and paints the natural world in all weathers, to the detriment of his health. At the same time, 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 in a way his peers do not. Lesley Manville, as natural philosopher Mary Somerville, opens his eyes with an experiment to reveal the properties of prisms. He even foresees the threat to art of the new-fangled camera, the daguerreotype, if it is ever able to capture colour.
In the latter part of his life, lodging with Margate landlady Mrs Booth (warm and buxom Marion Bailey) who is ignorant of his true identity, in the house that is now the seafront site of Margate’s wonderfully innovative Turner Museum, he was inspired by the wide skies of that part of the east coast, spending more and more time there. He befriended her and her ex-seaman husband and, when she was widowed, their relationship began and she looked after him until his death. Yet he kept it secret even when they moved back to London to live together in a house near the Thames, for him to still be close to water.
Leigh immerses us in the life of the time in a series of episodes. The early Victorian period is created with its creaking, uncomfortable interiors and by subtle cadences in the dialogue (Leigh’s screenplay) that give a period feel without being unduly archaic. Spall fills the screen like a whirlwind with Turner’s creative energy, recreating his canvasses realistically before our eyes, but always for a dramatic point. Colour is the most important thing and it sings from the screen. Spall says he spent two years learning to paint for the part, in the process discovering he had a talent for it – so much so that he completed an oil-on-canvas copy of Turner’s painting of a steamboat, which now hangs in his house.
Ultimately, the most telling scene in the film is the one in which Turner is offered a fortune to sell his entire work and unexpectedly refuses. He knows his own worth. He wants it to be bequeathed to the British nation, kept together in one place and exhibited as a body, “viewed by the public gratis”. Sadly, as Spall says, Turner would have been disappointed that the collection, though exhibited, is now split up.
There’s an interesting small crossover with Effie Gray, another film set in the Victorian art world, released on 10 October. In Mr Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites are just starting to make their mark, and at a dinner at the Royal Academy, Turner is seated next to Effie Gray (Eleanor Yates), recently married to John Ruskin – he encouragingly tells her that love will come. How wrong he was. And there is a gallery of contemporary luminaries, including John Constable (James Fleet), whom Turner knew, a young and very precious John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) – who Turner undercuts by asking him, to his confusion, if he prefers steak and kidney or veal and ham pies – and Sir Charles Eastlake (Robert Portal), though no Lady Eastlake this time, unlike in Effie Gray.
Mr Turner is released on 31st October 2014 in the UK