Review: Mr. Turner

Mike Leigh’s latest is a glorious diversion from his contemporary London tales (All or Nothing, Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year) and, like his Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy, proves a wonderfully funny, sumptuously detailed and beautifully moving study of another hugely hallowed – if sometimes impossible – artist.

Mike Leigh’s latest is a glorious diversion from his contemporary London tales (All or Nothing, Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year) and, like his Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy, proves a wonderfully funny, sumptuously detailed and beautifully moving study of another hugely hallowed – if sometimes impossible – artist. Leigh’s old mate Timothy Spall plays pre-Impressionist English painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), introduced in middle age as a well-to-do gentleman with a posh house, a grand reputation, a curious sexual relationship with his maid Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) and an abiding affection for his dear old dad (Paul Jesson, lovely as Turner Sr.). We see this artist at work, with his controversial use of foodstuffs, spit and more, and unlike many films about such figures, we’re actually allowed insight into his creative process, if not his rather odd relationships with women: he woos them with sweeping romantic statements, but never quite seems able to carry his affection into a proper partnership. When travelling incognito in Margate, however, he meets Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey), whom you just know is going to adore him once he compares her to Aphrodite, and his work becomes more prolific (and fairly revolutionary) as he ages. For a film about a painter known for his capturing of ‘the light’ and ‘the air’, Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope achieve extraordinary visuals here, with a fittingly paintlike look turning seaside scenes into Turneresque canvases, and some of Leigh’s old colleagues turn up in strong supporting roles (including Another Year’s Ruth Sheen as an inconvenient Turner ex and Lesley Manville as a charming Mary Somerville). But this is really all about the formidable Spall, who’s magnificent as a Turner who strides beaches at dawn, snorts derisively at the work of lesser talents, loves his father, puts women on a pedestal (and then doesn’t quite know what to do with them), harrumphs and grunts like a Monty Python character, and happily admits to having the countenance of a gargoyle.

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