Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Mike Leigh

Stars: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Richard Bremmer, Niall Buggy, Edward De Souza, James Fleet, Joshua McGuire, Fenella Woolgar.

John Mallord William Turner was a famous 19th century landscape artist renowned for his paintings of seascapes and shipwrecks, and a key figure in the so-called Romantic Movement. But this portrait of the artist comes from acclaimed British director Mike Leigh, who is best known for his bleak dramas, and rather than follow the normal conventions of the traditional biopic, it concentrates on the last 25 years of Turner’s life.

Turner was consumed by his work, and had little time for his shrewish estranged mistress (Ruth Sheen) and his shy daughters. Following the death of his beloved father (Paul Jesson) Turner was largely given over to eccentric behaviour. There are plenty of scenes of Turner traipsing around the countryside in search of inspiration, but there are also plenty of scenes of the phlegmatic Turner indulging his sexual appetites, and occasionally rubbing his peers at the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts up the wrong way. And he refuses to sell his paintings to a collector, despite a very generous offer, instead preferring to bequeath them to the nation, declaring that he wanted them to be displayed for the public in a gallery.

Timothy Spall, a regular collaborator with Leigh, totally inhabits the mercurial and deeply flawed character and reveals his contradictions. Uncompromising in his approach to his art, at one stage he has himself tied to the mast of a ship during a fierce storm so he can experience its force from a unique perspective. Unkempt, curmudgeonly, often abrupt, monosyllabic and inarticulate, brusque and rude in his dealing with others, he comes across as a largely unlikeable person. Spall grunts, growls and scowls his way through the role, which earned him the coveted best actor award at Cannes earlier in the year. He brings a rough, brutish and brooding quality to his performance.

Spall and Leigh spent a long time developing the character in rehearsals. Spall also spent two years perfecting his painting technique to bring added verisimilitude to his performance.

Television actress Dorothy Atkinson (from Call The Midwife, etc) also registers strongly as Hannah, his downtrodden but loyal housekeeper for forty years, and whose sad and scarred demeanour hides the genuine love she feels for Turner.

Leigh works in broad brush strokes here, giving the film an episodic feel at time that doesn’t put the man or events into some sort of context. His direction is deliberately languid, and at 150 minutes the film may be a little too slow paced for many. Turner also doesn’t offer a lot of keen insights into the man, or those early forces that shaped him, nor his later influence and importance, and as such it will appeal greatly to those who have more than a passing interest in the man and his work. It may not hold the same appeal to those who come to the film cold and without any knowledge of Turner.

However, the film looks good and is visually quite gorgeous. Suzie Davies’ production design and Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are all excellent and evocative of the period. And another of Leigh’s regular collaborators, Oscar nominated cinematographer Dick Pope (The Illusionist, etc), has shot the film digitally, which gives the images a crisp quality. Apparently he drew inspiration from Turner’s works to help shoot the landscapes using a colour palette and breathtaking visual style reminiscent of his paintings.


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