★★★★★ | Mr. Turner

Mike Leigh’s stunning biopic of J.M.W.Turner is the portrait of the leading English Romantic landscape artist who was evidently also quite a philanderer and misanthrope too. Set in the 1820’s (although Leigh never tells us that) the movie focuses on the last 20 years of the painter’s life when he was at the height of his success and his work was being exhibited at the Royal Academy and also commissioned by wealthy aristocrats.

Leigh’s story starts when Turner returns from a painting trip in Belgium to his London home that he shares with his elderly father who dotes on him and acts as his studio assistant, and also the sad-looking maid who allows Turner to have his way with her whenever he gets the urge. The maid just seems to be the latest of several mistresses, as the previously estranged one who has two simpering grown up daughters by Turner often comes around to harangue him looking for support which he never ever gives them.

When his precious father dies, Turner sinks into a deep depression and is even more bad-tempered with nearly everyone he comes into contact with. In one rather glorious scene when he is visiting the Summer Exhibition as it is being hung at the Royal Academy he is openly disparaging about the work of the other Academicians who constitute a veritable who’s who roll call of every major artist of the day (Constable, Stothard, Callcot etc).

On a trip to the small seaside town of Margate, which would become the inspiration for many of his most famous paintings, Turner meets the twice-widowed Mrs. Booth who becomes his live-in mistress, and later the pair moves to a house in Chelsea where Turner lives out the rest of his days.

Leigh and his cinematographer Dick Pope don’t just show Turner in action manically slathering paint over his canvasses but also capture evocative and powerful images of the landscapes often at dawn just as Turner would have viewed them. They are a real visual joy. As too are the sets of Victorian Britain that production designer Suzie Davies has lovingly recreated.

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Like all Leigh’s movies, Mr. Turner is created through an improvisational method from which the final script evolves. Enabling his actors to have more input than normal into creating their characters certainly plays off, as so brilliantly demonstrated by Timothy Spall who gives a career-best performance as Mr. Turner. With his expressive squashy face he so convincingly portrays the short-tempered genius that never lets anything distract him from his work. Even when he faces public ridicule after he experiments with his painting style, and also right to the very end when he is on his death bed he cannot but help himself seize one final perfect moment to sketch.

The talented cast is mainly made up of many of Leigh’s regular actors that include Dorothy Atkinson pitch perfect as the put-upon maid, Marion Bailey as the loyal Mrs. Booth and veteran actor Paul Jesson as Mr. Turner Snr.

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Overly long with a running time of 150 minutes which makes the action seem too slow and stretched out at times, nevertheless this screen biography lovingly gives a wonderful portrait for the only artist to ever now have a whole permanent gallery dedicated to his work at The Tate Gallery in London. Mr Spall’s (potentially) award-winning performance also makes this an unmissable film.

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About the author: Roger Walker-Dack
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