- RatedM18 /GenreBiography, Drama
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English painting’s renowned master of light, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), gets a suitably illuminating screen biography in Mike Leigh’s 'Mr. Turner', an ecstatically beautiful and exquisitely detailed portrait of the artist as a cantankerous middle-aged man whose brilliance with the brush overshadows his sometimes appalling lack of social graces.
Returning to the large-canvas period filmmaking of his 1999 Gilbert & Sullivan bio 'Topsy-Turvy', Leigh has made another highly personal study of art, commerce and the glacial progress of establishment tastes, built around a lead performance from longtime Leigh collaborator Timothy Spall that’s as majestic as one of Turner’s own swirling sunsets.
A natural awards contender across multiple categories, the movie rolls out 8 January in Singapore following a bevy of festival appearances.
Leigh has long spoken of wanting to make a Turner film, and his affinity for his subject is palpable in virtually every frame of 'Mr. Turner', which concentrates on roughly the last 25 years in the life of the painter who pushed landscape painting towards the vanguard of impressionism.
When the movie opens, it is sometime in the late 1820s, and Turner, recently returned from a painting expedition in Belgium, is settling back in the home studio he shares with his elderly father (Paul Jesson) and the forlorn housekeeper (an excellent Dorothy Atkinson) who doubles as Turner’s lover.
Among the skeletons in the painter’s closet are an estranged mistress (Ruth Sheen), two grown daughters and a grandchild, whom he collectively pays little mind and whose existence he denies to the outside world.
The family life is clearly not for Turner. Rather, he goes wherever the wind and the light carry him — specifically, to the southeastern coastal town of Margate, whose azure skies would inspire many of his paintings (including the much-celebrated 'The Fighting Temeraire').
It’s there, travelling under a pseudonym, that he rents a small seaside apartment from the twice-widowed landlady Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), who will eventually become Turner’s last mistress.
And it is this unlikely union, between art-world giant and country simpleton, that also becomes the emotional centre of Leigh’s film, with the buoyant, big-hearted Bailey (who played one of the wealthy employers of the abortionist maid in 'Vera Drake') making a superb counterbalance to the feral and ferocious Spall.
'Mr. Turner' employs a broader, more episodic structure that slowly and steadily immerses us in his world. It’s a heady snapshot of a London art scene dominated by the party politics of the Royal Academy of Arts, whose contentious group shows provide the setting for some of the movie's most memorable moments.
Shooting in widescreen, the director and his regular cinematographer Dick Pope strive less to re-create Turner’s canvases cinematically than to capture something of the land and light as it might have inspired him.
Whereas Leigh’s much-vaunted work with actors has often dominated the discussion around his films, 'Mr. Turner' should leave no lingering doubts that he is every bit as masterful a visual storyteller.
Spall, who so fully internalises Turner, doesn’t seem to be playing the part as much as channelling it. With his great squashed-in face, he shows you every flicker of thought that flashes across Turner’s mind, and every wince of pain that courses through his wearying body. He conveys the sense of a man driven by a talent and passion even he doesn’t fully understand.
The topnotch tech credits extend to production designer Suzie Davies and costume designer Jacqueline Durran, who make their own invaluable contributions to bringing the film’s 19th-century world so vividly to life. Composer Gary Yershon’s original score alternates an atonal woodwind theme with sharp, staccato strings to create something like the musical equivalent of Turner’s restless, roiling spirit.
'Mr Turner' opens 8 January 2015