JMW Turner’s is a difficult life to chronicle. There was no single ‘story’ that defined his legend, but instead a career of sure and steady progress. He cared for little beyond his craft and the results are evident today with Turner comfortably enshrined as one of Britain’s greatest ever painters.
Impressive as that accolade may be, it is not necessarily suited to the big screen. Turner’s paintings are glorious widescreen landscapes full of vivid colours, but they are also just that: paintings. Mr Turner summons up a few magical transitions that turn oil and paint into the raw natural beauty of mountains and countryside but the form is fundamentally limited. The creative process of spending weeks, months or years on one canvas is hardly the most cinematic of subjects, so director Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall (as Turner, of course) deserve credit for giving it as much energy and authenticity as they do.
Spall recreates the stunning and wholly believable paintings by brutalising the canvas with a painting style of body and soul. Spit and elbow grease are valid ingredients just as much as paint or brush. Every stroke is a masterpiece delivered not within the same old frame of tortured genius but with an assured flair built through decades of practice and innovation.
Turner’s artistry is conveyed effectively, but this is unashamedly a film about his character, not his work, and Spall brings astonishing nuance to a man of brute force and muted groans. He attacks the role armed with a thesaurus of grunts – in their own strange way, just as inexplicably articulate as the countless brushstrokes that speak through Turner’s paintings. Most of all, Spall perfects Turner’s defiant shield of obstinance and stoicism. Leigh often frames him in long takes with his back to camera, keeping him enigmatic, and the rest of the time a pugnacious scowl is writ large upon Spall’s face.
The real Turner was by all accounts a solitary and eccentric man, and Leigh’s collaborative scripting process embraces the contradiction between his personality and his art. Yes, Turner was an insanely talented artist who donated his finished paintings to the nation, but he was also just a man – a flawed and ordinary man. He openly denies that he has two children when asked by a fellow painter. He uses his housekeeper as a convenient sex object and little more. He is closer to his ill father but still watches him degenerate with little visible reaction. All this emotion is buried – a quiet burden fathoms deep – surfacing only in the hired privacy of a prostitute’s bedroom. As he later says to distressed colleague Benjamin Haydon: “Your pain is your own sir. Do not inflict it upon your loved ones”.
These explicitly dramatic character moments are tremendous, but they alone are not enough to drive a narrative slightly too full of slack frivolity. There are plenty of scenes from the contemporary art community and although it is undeniably great fun to see these sly caricatures of Constable, Haydon and Ruskin, they only amount to entertaining asides that fail to match the drama of Turner’s personal life.
John Ruskin in particular is a delight – hugely pretentious and played knowingly by Joshua McGuire. He’s a lisping little twerp of a man, fawning shamelessly over Turner and receiving only blunt indifference in return. He is, however, an uncommonly rare fan. Turner is clearly liked and respected by his peers, but his work is relegated to a deserted ante-room of the Royal Academy. His more impressionistic work, light-years ahead of his contemporaries, is openly mocked onstage. It’s a moment that breaks his heart. Refreshingly, though, for the most part he doesn’t give a damn.
Mr Turner is a meticulous yet broad study of artistic genius, bringing great insight to Turner’s character. The plot, however, is far too loose, and many of the anecdotal scenes of Turner’s everyday life feel lightweight and disposable. Spall is fantastic and is given strong support by Marion Bailey as his mistress Sophia Booth, Dorothy Atkinson as his housekeeper, Hannah Danby, and a whole host of Victorian artistic legends. Leigh’s direction is also impressive but he captures Turner’s genius too rarely to match his subject’s brilliance.
Mr Turner is out in UK cinemas on the 31st October.
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