Rating: 3 stars
Cast: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey
Director: Mike Leigh
Most of us would like to imagine that a story about a painter, a legendary landscape artist as Mr J.M.W. Turner, would be as lush as his works on canvas. Not much is documented about this 19th century British legend. But director Mike Leigh and his leading man Timothy Spall’s copious research led the path towards recreating the life of an artist, who outside his canvas, was actually not very pleasing to the senses.
The film traces the part of his life when he was already an established painter, much revered by the genteel and well-heeled populace of Great Britain in the 19th century. Spall’s Mr Turner is a grizzly, grunting, groaning and groping middle-aged man, completely allergic to any form of socialising. He has many detractors and many admirers. His housekeeper, Hannah, played by the hugely talented Dorothy Atkinson, is in awe of her landlord and hungry for his affection. However, for the painter, she’s no more than an occasional sex object, which he routinely reaches out for almost as mechanically as he would reach out for his painting paraphernalia, except that he doesn’t handle her with as much care. In fact, he’s almost an awkward savage in their carnal encounters. He visits the brothel to paint a prostitute. He uses his spit to wet dry parts of his canvas and paint over it again. He has no kind word for the mother of his two daughters from whom he is separated, he even denies he has children on one occasion.
With his very cheerful father (Paul Jesson) Mr Turner shares a very endearing, buddy-like relationship, perhaps his most honest, innocent and clean equations of all. And then there’s his lady friend in Margate, Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey) who becomes a widow and finds a perfect companion in Mr Turner. The painter, who has never been quite the ladies man, even takes her last name in their last days together. He was clearly a picture of contrasts, which was far from picturesque.
Director Mark Leigh deliberately keeps the artist boorish to intensify the beauty of his art --- a beauty that stems from contradiction. Mr Turner was someone who loved the sun and that showed in his use of light in his sunscapes and storms. “The sun is God! Ha Ha Ha!” he exclaims in one rare moment, when his perennial scowl takes the shape of a hearty smile. But the sun seemed confined to his canvas alone. Thus his art becomes breathtaking because it cannot be explained.
There are some grand moments in Dick Pope’s painterly cinematography, some seamless transitions from canvas to the scenery that never cease to amaze. Mark Leigh keeps the story brutally honest and unsentimental. The performances are exquisite. Besides Spall, worth a mention is Dorothy Atkinson, the almost mute housekeeper who only emotes with her expressions.
However, the story unfolds at an artists’ pace, flows in myriad directions, and sometimes even falls static. Perhaps, that was Mike Leigh’s intention, we don’t know. It may have worked on a painting, but as far as a motion picture is concerned, a certain amount of pace is mandatory to engage with the audience. The complex protagonist could have made for a rich work of cinema, but unfortunately, for its sheer lack of pace, Mr Turner becomes just a half done painting left to dry....