The opening shot in Mr Turner shows us an atmospheric scene across a Dutch landscape, complete with windmills, which emphasises the beauty of the countryside. But this is no recollection of the Dutch masters or even a recent revival in the work of Hendrik Goltzius as protrayed in Peter Greenaway’s art, sex and blood drenched art film Goltzius and the Pelican Company (2014) but rather a wholly less graphic and far more popularist biopic of the remarkable British sea and landscape pioneer J.M.W. Turner.
Timothy Spall once again teams up with Mike Leigh in this drama which portrays the closing years of Turner’s life. A grumpy, growling grouch with his own issues to brush up against (physically and metaphorically with both society and the canvas) J.M.W. Turner has to present and sell his paintings, although his father William (Paul Jesson), who is very close to his son and works as his assistant, is largely responsible for presenting his son’s portfolio to polite society as Turner Jr doesn’t really do the salesman routine with any enthusiasm or vigour. He does, however, know a number of people who realise that his unconventional painting forms are worthy of attention, including renowned art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire). His relationships are, if anything, more confused. He finds Sarah Danby’s (Ruth Sheen) confrontational attitude disconcerting and annoying when she comes to visit, but her irritable disposition is easy to understand because he is the father of their two illegitimate daughters and Turner doesn’t seem to be at all interested in their welfare. He’s also having a sexual relationship with his long-time housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) and begins a protracted affair with twice widowed Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), from whom he initially rents a room when he makes one of his coastal trips away from the capital city to inspire his compositions. But society demands his presence, even if occasionally it doesn’t approve of his behaviour, attitude, art, or even his singing voice.
Mr Turner is without a doubt Timothy Spall’s film – he absolutely captures Turner’s mannerisms and attitudes (in as much as we can know about the real artist) and presents us with a fascinating character of contradictions – eloquent and indifferent, sociable and misanthropic, solitary and sociable. Also, in a tradition of method acting that would make many of his forbears and contemporaries proud, Spall started taking art lessons two years prior to appearing in the film, learning to draw and paint (as can be seen on screen), even reproducing his own Turner oil painting.
There is a moment early on in Ken Russell’s biopic Lisztomania (1976) when our protagonist, a celebrity within a polite society who have perceived expectations of behaviour, is approached by a slightly inebriated Johannes Brahms. Liszt’s response to this worthy composer is, ‘piss off Brahms.’ A similar moment occurs in Mr Turner when, at the Royal Academy of Arts, our protagonist is amused and infuriated in equal measure by John Constable (James Fleet) obsessively touching up his painting with red paint even as it hangs on the wall, so Turner marches up to his own adjacent picture and splats a dollop of red paint onto the canvas, apparently ruining the seascape, to Constable’s evident chagrin. Obviously Mr. Turner never touches the enjoyable pop-intellectual extremity of Ken Russell’s film but it does, while maintaining its 12A rating, at least link aspects of sex and humour that are reflected in the lives of both films’ protagonists. Turner’s sexual appetite, his need for affairs and sex (both physically and emotionally) are defined not just with his mistresses but also in a notable moment when he visits a brothel to see a prostitute (Kate O’Flynn) following the death of his father. It is clear that he is a regular customer. However, when he asks the girl to disrobe she expects potential perversion, but Turner simply takes out his art equipment and treats her as a model for his latest work.
Beautifully filmed, often in a manner reflecting if not the artist’s exact paintings, at least the environments within which he composed them, this is a fascinating biopic and Spall’s performance truly reflects the enigma of this character. Mr. Turner is a heritage epic covering the last quarter of a century in the life of its protagonist. It may even make you reconsider (or consider) exploring Turner’s art (further) if you hadn’t thought about doing so before.