Great Artist Mr. Turner, Thumbs Nose at Establishment in Rousing Mike Leigh Flick

A magnificent growling-bear performance by Timothy Spall is just one of the masterful brushstrokes in this lusty, physical, spit-and-spunk portrait of JMW Turner from singular British screen artist Mike Leigh. Adventurously wielding a digital palette to echo and invoke the oily grit of their subject’s work (the sight of pigment being ground is profoundly textural), Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope paint a tactile landscape in which “the sun is God” and steamy science is the future. Through this ever-changing kingdom of light strides Spall’s vibrantly curmudgeonly Turner, a full figure of fleshy contradictions, both abrasively insular and gregariously outgoing, simultaneously loving and callous, sensitive yet animalistic. For all his authentic 19th-century turns of phrase (the film’s Dickensian language is a joy), Spall’s most expressive utterance is not a word but a growl – a guttural sound that speaks poetic volumes. Never before has “Ghhrrrrr” meant so much or conveyed such depth of character.

Set in the later years of the artist’s life, from 1828 onwards, Leigh’s film follows Turner through the denial of his daughters and the loss of his father (a wonderfully touching and tender performance by Paul Jesson) to the discovery of new life and love amid growing sickness and infirmity. En route he delivers rambling lectures at the Royal Academy that merely restate his outsider status, annoys Queen Victoria who is not amused by his move toward preimpressionist abstraction (“Ugh, a dirty yellow mess!”) and mocks the likes of John Constable (James Fleet, a picture of repressed outrage) with the theatrical application of a single dab of red paint.

Most memorably, Turner hosts historically accurate viewings of his works that are unveiled from darkness while he peers through a peephole in the wall, furtively watching his audience like the director of a play, spying upon his production from the wings. As with Topsy-Turvy, Leigh’s most visually ambitious movie prior to Mr Turner, this is a piece about the nature of performance. When the scene of The Fighting Temeraire is brought to life with the aid of computer graphics, the theatrical sleight of hand seems entirely organic; elsewhere, the camera zooms in on 1812’s Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps to reveal a dramatic detail of one of Hannibal’s elephants hidden amid the vastness of the Alpine skies (“hubris!”), Leigh’s cinematic direction bridging the divide between the single frame of a painting and the unspooling action of a play. Just as the artist creates his pictures with a rampant physical fervour, so the result of his endeavours is anything but still. What could be more theatrical than the sight of Turner lashed to the mast of a ship, inhaling the atmosphere of a raging storm, a bedraggled King Lear battered by wind and rain?

While his art engages, Turner’s personal life is depicted as increasingly insular and alienated, particularly in relation to the women who fall into his selfish circle. An early abrasive encounter with Mrs Danby (Ruth Sheen), by whom he has fathered two neglected daughters, establishes the artist as cruelly unwilling to acknowledge his adult responsibilities, preferring to be pampered by his own father rather than shoulder the burdens (and bereavements) of paternity. Meanwhile, housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson, strong yet pitch-perfectly pitiable) dutifully accommodates Turner’s random needs for sexual relief, her own unspoken affections unmatched by his physical advances, which have the character of an assault. Brothels are visited for inspiration; the corpse of a drowned woman fires a feverish creative urge. Only in his relationship with Margate widow Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey) does Turner seem able to make an intimate personal connection.

For all its evident admiration of his work and legacy (Turner refuses to sell his paintings for a handsome £100,000, insisting that they will be left to the nation), this is also an honestly unsympathetic portrait of the artist as an ageing man. On the canvas there is great beauty, while in his life there is ugliness aplenty.

In contrast to such gathering darkness, a cameo portrayal of the art critic John Ruskin as a lisping twerp has raised a few eyebrows. Indeed, some have read Joshua McGuire’s broad comic caricature as an attack upon critics in general, a pompously prattling mummy’s boy whose words, even when raised in praise, can neither capture nor comprehend the power of the image. Personally, I saw it more as a reminder of Leigh’s mischievous love of comedy (he once told me: “I just want to laugh”), an interlude of verbal slapstick harking back to the painfully awkward jousting of Nuts in May or Abigail’s Party.

As for Mr Turner, there are plenty of bursts of raucous laughter, most of them generated by Spall, whose ear for a well-timed line is as keen as his character’s eye for colourful detail. He may have spent two years learning to paint in preparation for this career-defining role, but what shines through is a lifetime spent mastering the full spectrum of the performer’s palette, all of which is employed in this awards-worthy portrait of a man wrestling light with his hands as if it were a physical element: tangible, malleable, corporeal.

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