Portrait of the artist as an eccentric

Mr Turner (12A)

Mike Leigh confirms his reputation as a director of the first rank with this beautifully-nuanced biopic of the 19th century British artist J.M.W. Turner. Not an awful lot happens over the two-hour-plus running time, which may make some viewers impatient, but the film – like, indeed, a Turner painting itself – is lyrical and meticulous. 

Leigh stalwart Timothy Spall plays the eponymous role. I thought he overdid the grunting a bit, and he tends to wear the same bullish expression throughout, but he’s so intensely immersed in the part it’s hard not to be impressed.

He plays Turner as a man with an almost primitive sexuality (there’s one graphic sex scene). He’s also a man who deserts the mother of his two illegitimate daughters because he’s ‘married’ to his art. Neither does he show any emotional reaction when one of these daughters dies. And yet he squalls like an infant when his father passes away.

Yes, he was a contradiction – like most great artists.
His working methods are as odd as himself. He uses foodstuffs to mix paints and is inspired by the most unlikely events. At one point, he has himself tied to the mast of a ship so he can paint a snowstorm.

His love life is equally unorthodox. Having abandoned his mistress (Ruth Sheen, another ubiquitous member of the Leigh repertory company), he takes up with a Chelsea landlady (Marion Bailey) whom he first meets using a pseudonym. The woman who loves him most is his housekeeper, played by Dorothy Atkinson. For me, this is the most interesting performance in the film. She doesn’t do much except lurch around his studio in a hunched pose but her quizzical expressions convey a wealth of reactions. In some ways she’s like a character in a Beckett play, meandering around the place without any apparent purpose, and yet taking everything in with those curious eyes.

Leigh also finds time to satirise Turner’s contemporaries – the hilariously egotistical art critic John Ruskin, the permanently impecunious Benjamin Haydon, his bitter rival John Constable, etc. Turner was far too erratic to fit in with these self-satisfied worthies but his exchanges with them in the Royal Academy of Arts provide some much-needed light relief in what is at times an emotionally draining film.
Like Ms Atkinson it’s in no particular hurry to go anywhere, so sit back and savour the meticulous mises-en-scenes of a master craftsman at the top of his game.