Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Jesson, Marion Bailey
Dir. Mike Leigh
If you’re going to make a film about the life of JMW Turner you’re under pressure to get the cinematography right. (How else will you do justice to the art of the subject.) In this respect Ken Loach’s Mr Turner delivers.
And it’s not just the cinematography that is exceptional about this film. Timothy Spall’s extraordinary performance in the title role is a cross between a Dickensian character and Mr Toad. To prepare for the part Spall had to learn how to paint, and then learn how to paint like Turner.
Spall’s characterisation is encompassed in one brilliant scene during a very formal conversation at the home of John Ruskin’s parents. Ruskin natters on about his disdain for the romantic painters like Claude Lorraine, shocking a room full of guests. When he’s done, a grunting mumbling Turner who has held his tongue long enough, asks Ruskin if he prefers steak and kidney pies to veal and ham!
There are no weak points in the film, no superfluous characters, no unnecessary scenes. Mr Turner flows along as dreamlike and suggestive as one of his paintings. Perhaps the most provocative scene involves Turner out on a boat with his associates discussing the issues of the day. Coming towards them is a tug pulling the retired hulk of the Fighting Temeraire. To see Turner’s famous painting portrayed ‘in the flesh’ is a masterstroke on Roach’s behalf and utterly provocative.
But back to the scenery, whether it’s the multi-coloured fancies on display where Turner’s father goes to buy the pigments for his son’s paint or the woodland pond where Turner goes to fish alone after his father’s death, the photography, the settings, the landscapes are exquisite. You can watch this film over and over again, for the scenery, for the characters, for the story, told without melodrama, without contrivance.
A masterpiece that deserves to be associated with the reputation that belongs to Turner himself.