Mike Leigh ventured into the Victorian era with his stupendous Topsy Turvy, an account of George Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s creation of The Mikado.
The mood in this study of the great nineteenth century painter J. M. W. Turner is altogether different, and though the running time of both is almost identical (154 & 150 mins), the former flew by whereas the latter drags.
Films that deal with famous artists/musos/writers etc., generally start with them in the netherland of social acceptance and chart their struggle to the top. In this, Turner is already at the peak of his powers when we meet him, a grande fromage at the Royal Academy with wealth and influence.
Whether he is likeable or not is another matter, and Timothy Spall, in his gruff and lugubrious portrayal never really encourages outright affection for the man. Most artists are obsessive about their work – it goes with the territory – and Spall’s Turner is so to the point that he is never fully at ease in the company of London’s A-list.
He grunts a lot and is not above shagging the maid when brutish carnal desire overwhelms him. Not until he encounters Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey), a Margate landlady with whom he has registered as Mr. Mallard (one of his middle names), are we encouraged to feel genuine empathy for Turner.
That he takes so long to come out of his shell detracts from a movie that exhibits an acute appreciation of Turner’s awesome works and is built on sumptuous production values – Jacqueline Durran’s costume design is a treat, a drawing room singing recital is an absolute hoot, and the sight of the Temeraire being towed up-river to be scuppered is a magnificent image.
Disappointingly, because Leigh has chosen only to cover Turner’s later years, the artist’s striving to master the skills required to express his vision is not explored.
Though beautiful in many ways, the light that illuminates Turner’s canvases is unable to penetrate the dourness of Leigh’s film.
~ John Campbell