Film of the Week: A perfect portrait of artistic maverick
16:01 30 October 2014
On his death bed, celebrated landscape painter and watercolourist Joseph Mallord William Turner, who was a divisive figure in the 19th-century art world, reportedly lamented, “So I am to become a non-entity.”
Mr Turner (12A)
Mike Leigh’s impeccably crafted biopic, which concentrates on the final 25 years of the artist’s career, ensures the genius of Turner lives on.
Anchored by a magnificent central performance from Timothy Spall, Mr Turner is another glorious ensemble piece from the writer-director of Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake.
Developed through improvisational workshops, which are the trademark of Leigh’s filmmaking process, the script melds historical fact with personal interpretation to burrow deep beneath the surface of the characters and expose the desires and fears which drove some to greatness and others to despair.
When it comes to greatness, Spall’s embodiment of an artist with few social graces and a surplus of talent is the stuff that Oscars were made of.
The London-born actor spent two years learning how to paint like Turner so he could convincingly hold a brush and palette in front of the camera, allowing Leigh to capture visceral scenes of artistic creativity in full flow.
Mr Turner opens with the breathtaking image of the artist capturing the rising sun over fields in Belgium.
He returns to London and the home he shares with his father William (Paul Jesson) and housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson).
The relationship between the two men is sketched in exquisite, heart-warming detail in these early scenes, with Turner warmly embracing his “daddy”.
Turner channels his energy into his work, which continues to raise eyebrows at the Royal Academy Of Arts.
“The universe is chaotic and you make us see it,” observes Turner’s good friend Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville).
During excursions to Margate, Turner meets Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey) and her husband (Karl Johnson) and rents a room from the couple so he can paint seascapes by the morning light.
The burgeoning relationship between the artist and Mrs Booth sweetens the bitter pill of William’s passing and Turner continues to clash with the artistic establishment, represented here by Sir John Soane (Nicholas Jones) and his coterie.
Mr Turner is a glorious period piece that offers us a glimpse behind the canvasses of a misunderstood maverick, who notes at one point, “When I peruse myself in a looking glass, I see a gargoyle.”
Spall is imperious and Leigh surrounds his lead star with an impeccable supporting cast of familiar faces including Jesson as an honest, hard-working man of the world who believed “the rain falls, the sun shines and the onions grow” and Atkinson as the housekeeper who allows Turner to use her to sate his sexual desires.
The 150-minute running time passes too quickly, holding our attention with ravishing costumes and period detail as well as a haunting orchestral score from composer Gary Yershon.
Very nearly a masterpiece.
***** (5 stars)