Die-hard socialist director Mike Leigh returns to Victoriana with this handsome and unconventional biopic of seascape painter J.M.W. Turner; don’t be fooled by the top hats and posh frocks, the old leftie uses his artistic Man of the People to attack the establishment as always…
Focusing on the latter part of Turner’s life, Tim Spall is a monumental, shuffling, shambling, porcine gargoyle, who expresses more in his many grunts than most actors can speak in a lifetime of dialogue. Warm, touching, tragic, and highly comic, Leigh’s collected tableaux of Turner’s life is the movie highlight of 2014.
Winding back from 1999’s superb Gilbert and Sullivan movie Topsy-Turvey, Leigh picks up in the middle of Turner’s career. Already The Great Artist, accepted into the Royal Academy and feted by society, we see Turner on his sketching travels, returning to a chaotic household.
Leigh depicts Turner as the eccentric, erratic and contradictory bohemian artist; he’s long abandoned his family, living with his retired father and besotted housekeeper; he sketches Britain and Europe, returing to his studio to paint and along the way picks up a kindly seaside landlady as his common-law wife.
While Tim Spall grunts and grumbles as the working-class lad made good, Leigh uses him to attack feckless aristocrats, the pretentious middle-class bourgeoisie, the cliquey, competitive London art world of the RA, the capitalist captains of industry; even Victoria and Albert are pilloried as dilettante art critics. Leigh pointedly gives us the stark contrast of Victorian England – the splendour of country houses and the Academy set against the everyday squalor and disease of the common people.
Turner is keenly aware of the coming modern world; despite being the art radical, foreshadowing the impressionists with his unique style, Turner the man is also a product of a bygone age, his beloved wooden ships giving way to iron and steam. And while he embraces modernity – science, the railways, steamships – he knows his world is changing. The invention of photography both delights and horrifies him. One of the many heart-breaking moments comes when his works are downgraded at the RA in favour of a (particularly bad) selection of early Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
Ever the outsider, the non-conformist Turner plays fast and loose with his identity; denying he ever had children, travelling as Mr Mallard, living as Mr Booth with his mistress.
Mr Turner is also laugh out loud funny; Spall turning his many grunts into comic punchlines and put-downs. Indeed, Spall grumbles, sobs, and laughs with noises that seem impossible from a human voice.
Mr Turner is soaked in period detail, all marvellously captured by cinematographer Dick Pope. Everywhere you look are fantastic period faces, from the leads through to the background artists.
Wonderful cameos span the supporting cast – Leo Bill as the simpering emigre American photographer Mayall; Joshua McGuire, the precocious, lisping young Ruskin; Ruth Sheen is righteously indignant as the abandoned Mrs Turner; James Fleet as Constable is comprehensively humiliated by Turner at the RA; Martin Savage is the angry but weak Hayden. Topsy-turvy star Leslie Mannville is less successful as Scots pioneer scientist Lady Sommerville. The star turns are Dorothy Atkinson the housekeeper, a distant relative of Mrs Overall, and Marion Bailey as the Margate landlady Mrs Booth.
A shuffling, langorous film, the running time never drags. Half a lifetime with these characters is too short. RC
Mr Turner (2014)
Director: Mike Leigh
Writer: Mike Leigh
Running time: 150 mins
Cast: Timothy Spall, Paul Jeeson, Marion Bailey, Dorothy Atkinson, Karl Jonson, Ruth Sheen, Sandy Foster, Amy Dawson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage
Related: Effie Gray (2014)