JMW Turner (that’s Joseph Mallord William Turner) was a prominent and often controversial painter of the Romantic period known as the “painter of light”.
Producing evocative watercolours of sea and land until his death in 1851, Turner is played by Timothy Spall in one of the most commanding films of the year.
You may know Spall from roles in the Harry Potter movies and The King’s Speech. Given the quality of his acting here, it is no surprise that he won the 2014 Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
The film captures the professional aspect of its subject while also offering us the less-formal William Turner, and the Billy Turner known to his family and intimates. Spall’s portrayal reveals a complex and sometimes coarse man of contradictions. Capable of gruff assertions, strange denials and profoundly internalised grief, he also shows insight and real intimacy. Spall shows him as a man of few words, often inclined to grunting rather than speaking.
Turner’s painting style polarised opinion, as did his eccentric manner of living. One of the other key roles is that of Turner’s housekeeper and sometime sexual partner Hannah Danby, played by Dorothy Atkinson with such sad delicacy it is a wonder she, too, did not receive a prize at Cannes. The subtlety of her acting is a delight.
Turner’s landlady when he visits Margate for painting trips is Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). Booth becomes his eventual long-time partner, bringing a warmth and constancy to the painter’s life. All the time he has an understandably bitter wife and earlier family.
Nothing about the characters is prettied up. Crooked teeth and ordinary complexions are the norm here, rather than fashion magazine styling, adding to a sense of historical realism. Danby, in particular, suffers with a condition that renders her position all the more sympathetic but without that being overdone.
Director Mile Leigh is restrained in his palette, yet conveys with precision the milky washes and atmospheric effects of Turner’s works and the environment from which he drew inspiration. The period detail is convincing, with costuming and domestic set materials that please.
We might feel for a painter whose remaining work is worth a fortune but who prefers to see it donated to his country for continuing exhibition rather than seizing the prospect of immediate financial gain. Towards the end of the story, however, Turner is seeing his work lampooned, and his often failing health is more problematic. Has he made the right decision?
Be sure to arrive early in order to get a seat well away from the front, especially if it is also to the side. Otherwise, you’ll have a weirdly skewed view of the screen and a sore neck for days. Be wise in this and you will find that Mr Turner, though long at two and a half hours, is time well spent.
Mr Turner is screening on Saturday night (November 15) at Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas as part of the British Film Festival, which finishes on Sunday.
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