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Directed By Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh’s dazzling biopic of one of Britain’s most celebrated and controversial artists,JMW Turner, is a masterpiece which creates the role that earned his regular collaboratorTimothy Spall the Best Actor award at Cannes. Timothy Spall’s magnificent, multi-faceted, vivid portrayal is superb, a worthy award winner. His Turner is a seething mass of contradiction – eccentric grunting, blunt, 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, all his life he was single-mindedly obsessed with creating the greatest art – visiting a prostitute, he ends up sketching her instead. He could also be generous, giving money to needy, unsuccessful artists. He was of his time, moving from a classical style to visionary, impressionistic marine landscapes and sunsets which were ridiculed at first by conventional critics and the public.
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 Snow Storm Steam-boat, which now hangs in his home.
The film takes us through the last 25 years of Turner’s life, now 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. He obsessively observes, draws and paints the natural world in all weathers, to the detriment of his health. 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, he lodged with Margate landlady Mrs Booth (warm and buxomMarion Bailey, Leigh’s partner) who is at first ignorant of his true identity, in the house that is now the seafront site of Margate’s wonderfully innovative Turner Contemporary museum. He was inspired by the wide, open 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. Yet he kept it secret, even when they moved back to London to live together in domestic harmony in a house near the Thames. She looked after him until his death, when he uttered his moving last words – “The sun is king”.
Turner was offered a fortune to sell his entire work and refused. He wanted 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 today because that the collection, though exhibited, is now split up.
It’s an extraordinary film that brings to life an extraordinary artist, warts and all. Seeing him portrayed as so human makes his artistic genius seem even more extraordinary.
There’s an interesting 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 critic and artist John Ruskin. And in Turner, there is a gallery of luminaries of the time, including John Constable (James Fleet), whom Turner knew, a young and affected John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) and Sir Charles Eastlake (Robert Portal), though no Lady Eastlake this time, as in Effie Gray.
Mr Turner screens at the London Film Festival on 10th and 11th October and is in UK cinemas 31st October 2014
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