Beyond being vaguely aware he was a painter, I knew nothing of the work or life of J M W Turner. I came out of Mike Leigh’s “Mr Turner” determined to learn more about this exceptional man and keen to find out which galleries display his work so I can go and see them for myself.
Charting the last twenty-five or so years of his life, this thoroughly engrossing biopic is rich in period detail and illuminated by an incredible central performance by Timothy Spall. Spall has always been one of Britain’s great character actors but here he delivers the performance of a lifetime. A complex, difficulty and often contradictory man, the film shows Turner in all his glory and all his flawed humanity, from the callous and cruel rejection of his own children to the extraordinarily touching tenderness of his relationship with his father and, in his later years, his mistress Mrs Booth. All the while, his gruff and curmudgeonly exterior belying his immense talent and remarkable perception of the world around him. Spall plays it with such guile and subtlety that he can communicate whole soliloquies with a single grunt and if there’s any justice his performance will be recognised come award season. There’s also a sensational performance from Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s faithful housekeeper Hannah Danby whose near-wordless role is nevertheless one of the most fully rounded and sympathetic characters in the whole film.
Mike Leigh’s script fizzes with the poetic formality and exquisite loquaciousness of public discourse in the late Georgian and early Victorian period. The lyricism of the dialogue is a thing of beauty in its own right and a fine complement to the splendour of Turner’s paintings which inform much of the cinematography. The narrative avoids any exposition or captioning in favour of simply immersing you in Turner’s existence, allowing you to absorb the insights and experiences as we see him alternately court and thumb his nose at the establishment and witness the lengths he was prepared to go in pursuit of his art.
I went into “Mr Turner” expecting a bit of highbrow infotainment but instead was rewarded with a wonderfully enchanting biography of a great artist. Spall and Atkinson may stand proud but they are surrounded by a fantastic ensemble under the masterful direction of Mike Leigh. Despite its length, occasionally dense and cryptic tone and occasionally overly affected performances, the film offers an always fascinating and often poignant insight.