Wednesday, 12 November 2014
This is a beautiful film - less a narrative, feels almost like a documentary. This biopic follows the last 25 years of the life of the celebrated and eccentric English painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). It is beautifully shot - the lighting is always significant and as Turner was masterful in depicting the fickle and ever-changing nature of light in his paintings, so Mike Leigh as Director allows the watery and pastel shades of the lighting palette to shape the mood and feel of each scene.
This film has a great cast but the starring performance is Timothy Spall in the lead role closely followed by Dorothy Atkinson playing his devoted and abused housekeeper Hannah Danby. Turner's eccentricities lead him to follow a peripatetic lifestyle - always popping off to the coast to sketch, study the light, visit a brothel, present a paper at the Royal Academy of Arts or indulge his alter-ego. Turner's dedication to research is to be commended - his constant desire to explore and understand changing light is what drives him.
This is a film about relationships, regrets, denial, genius and the formal art establishment doing its thing in a very English way. It isn't clear from the film whether Turner has divorced from his wife or is simply separated. Many of the relationships here are ambiguous. What is clear is that it a dead relationship but Turner seemingly has little or no feeling for his grown-up daughters - even when one of them dies. As well as keeping house, the Syphilitic, scabby and stooping Hannah Danby is also available for a passing grope of quick bonk (on reflection rape?) when it pleases Turner - no affection is demonstrated.
For me, this film is primarily about the inspiration Turner draws from his father and how his work changes following the death of his father and how he loses favour within the Academy and with his Royal patrons as a consequence. The film is also set against the evolution of sea-going vessels moving from sail to steam and the, unwelcome in Turner's eyes, unstoppable growth of the railways. A further transition that impacts Turner's sensibilities is the advent of photography which Turner fears will mean the end of painting as an art form.
Turner is a complex and at times unpredictable character. Spall speaks more in grunts than words - perhaps the product of a Mike Leigh Directed film, but he always manages to inflect great meaning into his grunting. His characterisation was for me utterly compelling and convincing. I'm not sure I would have wanted him as a friend or even a casual acquaintance, but I'm grateful for this film to help me better appreciate Turner's paintings. At 2:30 this is not a short film - but it is gripping and engaging. I'll give it 8/10.