Mr Turner (2014)
November 8, 2014 5:18 PM - Subscribe

Timothy Spall portrays the English painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh's film about the last twenty-five years of his life.

An extraordinary film

On the one hand it is a painstaking recreation of mid 19th Century England. We follow Mr Turner in a series of vignettes as he moves between his home and studio, the country estate of a patron, stunning landscapes, the Royal Academy and Margate, where he sketches seascapes and slowly falls in love with his landlady.

On the other, it's a tribute to the work of the man who might fairly be considered England's greatest painter, accentuating the visionary proto-abstraction of his paintings (two of the most famous - The Fighting Temeraire and Rain, Steam and Speed - are only seen and fully recognisable as the base compositions before the figurative forms are added). Sometimes it's difficult to tell whether what we are seeing is a painting or actual meteorological phenomena rendered by the cinematographer Dick Pope. Turner is most in his element at the Royal Society, surrounded by his peers, including John Constable (on one of whose paintings he enacts a critical intervention). As he grows older, he falls out of favour (particularly after a stinking review from that famous art critic Queen Victoria) while the sentimental figurative painting of the Pre-Raphaelites ascends (though the film doesn't mention that after his death the unsufferably pretentious John Ruskin will gather and catalogue his paintings and seal his reputation, but never mind that).

It's also a typically Leigh meditation on human mortality and fragility. We are invited to square the warmth and affection he feels for his father or Mrs Booth in Margate with his apparent carelessness for his devoted housekeeper Hannah (who never complains), or the coldness he shows to his former lover (who complains at great length) and the daughters she bore.

The film is packed with wonderful, warm, detailed performances - in particular, Spall is marvellous as Turner, Dorothy Atkinson heartbreaking as Hannah, but one might expect many of the characters to wander off into a film of their own.

Often stunningly beautiful, funny, profound and achingly sad. Most reminiscent of Leigh's earlier film Topsy Turvy, which similarly plucked something that had become a cliche of British heritage culture and showed that it had sprung from vital imaginations in a moment of intense creativity. For reasons I don't quite understand, for a few hours after seeing the film I was an emotional wreck. I mean, it's not a spoiler to say that he dies at the end, I was expecting it. I certainly plan to get down to Tate Britain as soon as I can to see Turner's extraordinary paintings in real life.
posted by Grangousier (4 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
(Oops, he didn't interfere with a Constable, my mistake. Constable is dead upset, though.)
posted by Grangousier at 5:30 PM on November 8, 2014

Oh, bugger, I can't wait to see this as Turner is one of my favourite painters. Come on Kingston, get on it!
posted by Kitteh at 7:06 PM on November 8, 2014

Excellent film. I'm glad I finally saw it, though I wish I'd seen that fantastic cinematography on the big screen instead of on my TV.
posted by homunculus at 11:04 PM on September 6, 2015

Mr Turner & Mrs Somerville
posted by homunculus at 11:04 PM on September 6, 2015

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