Mr Turner, film review: Brushstrokes of genius from Timothy Spall as old master

(12A) Mike Leigh, 149 mins Starring: Timothy Spall, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville

Geoffrey Macnab
Thursday 30 October 2014 23:30
Comments
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’

Mike Leigh's biopic is a rambling, richly detailed character study with a magnificent central performance from Timothy Spall. This may be 19th-century costume fare but it is made with the same precise attention to its protagonists' yearnings and comic foibles as we find in Leigh's contemporary dramas with Spall, whether Secrets and Lies or his woefully underrated All Or Nothing.

Leigh follows JMW Turner (1775-1851) in the final 25 or so years of his life as the artist paints in his studio, roams around seaside towns, gropes his housekeeper, courts a seaside landlady, deals reluctantly with family matters and consorts with fellow members of the Royal Academy.

As played by Spall, Turner is a grunting, walrus-like figure with a hint of Charles Dickens' Sam Weller about him. He is first seen in Holland, where he has been sketching, examining the light and taking a "gander" at the works of Rembrandt. Back home in London, he is looked after by his father, William Turner Snr (Paul Jesson), a former barber. Father and son are earthy characters without any pretensions.

Turner here is a bumbling, comical figure, but one who also possesses huge intellectual curiosity and single-mindedness. Dick Pope, Leigh's cinematographer, does bravura work in portraying the "damn fine storms" that Turner liked to paint, and the cloudscapes and crepuscular scenes ("the fiery firmament") that so fascinated him.

Spall's Turner isn't above vanity. He wants his paintings to be hung in prominent positions, and he is clearly hurt when Queen Victoria scorns his work – and, equally, hurt by the more public grumble that he "has taken leave of form altogether" in his more abstract work. He is astute about money, unlike some of his wastrel colleagues. He is also capable of behaving with extreme callousness to his own family. This, it becomes apparent, is not because he is unkind. It is simply that he is so preoccupied with his work that he doesn't have time to notice them.

In spite of its occasional flights of visual splendour, one of the most engaging aspects of the film is its mundane quality. Biopics of great artists tend to be overwrought: the artists have turbulent love affairs, or are driven mad by their muse. Leigh is more interested in exploring the everyday life of his subject. The paradox is that such an ordinary-seeming man was responsible for such visionary art.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in