When I think of Mike Leigh, I think of great female characters — Vera Drake, Secrets and Lies, Happy Go Lucky. And with Mr. Turner he proves that he is just a adept with the other half of the population. The film looks at the Victorian era painter J.M.W. Turner’s final 25 years and I must say, he is not the man I would have imagined from seeing his work. Played by wonderful character actor Timothy Spall (Harry Potter, Secrets and Lies) the painter is both crude and caring, crazed and cunning. If you are unaware of his work, head to any of the great museums and take a look. He was ahead of his time. While the others were clinging to the rules of Romantic realism, his landscapes were somewhat abstract and full of passion. This film will give you an even greater appreciation for his work. It is a gorgeous step backwards in time to the early 19th century in British society. (Warning: Some of the authentic speaking was hard for this 21st century American to understand.)
The film explores Turner’s loving relationship with his father and his heartbreak at his death. We accompany him on his travels around the country sketching and his return home to London to paint and to meet with art patrons and his fellow painters at the Royal Academy of Arts. He is sought after by high society, but more at home it seems with common people. He seemed to have few close friends and to be consumed by his work, neglecting his estranged wife and daughters, though finding time here and there for a quickie with his odd, devoted housekeeper. But after renting a room from a woman while visiting the coast, he developed a lasting romantic relationship that continued until his death.
It is a very contradictory character. He is not the least bit attractive. He doesn’t speak much, though he does grunt a lot. His style while around the high society sets him apart, yet they seemed to love him anyway. But it is the beauty of the paintings coming from this obsessive artist that is the draw. The land and seascapes that he is sketching are brought to beautiful light by the cinematography of Dick Pope. There are times you’re not sure if you’re looking at a painting or a scene until something moves. It is really gorgeous to watch. And Timothy Spall’s performance is truly astonishing. He was nominated and won quite a few awards for it. I’d recommend it to art lovers and history buffs. It is no doubt best on a big screen, but would not lose its essence with home viewing. (Just please don’t watch it on a tiny airplane screen.)