The movie is mainly a character study of the great artist. Timothy Spall spent three years preparing for this role, including teaching himself to paint in Turner’s style, and it was effort well spent. Spall inhabits the role thoroughly, making Turner’s many contradictions of character believable and natural. He is normally monosyllabic and antisocial, but could be cheerful and sociable among colleagues. He had great erudition but could be horridly crude. He had a long and evidently tender relationship with his mistress, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), but is totally cold towards his prior mistress, Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) and disavows his two daughters by her. Meanwhile, he callously exploits his abject housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson).
This gives Spall the opportunity to enact a great range of emotion. A classically trained actor, he can literally express more emotion with his back to the camera than many actors can face front. In one scene, Sarah Danby is berating him for missing the funeral of their eldest daughter. While she sees only Turner’s impassive visage, the audience sees his hands behind him, fingers twisting into painful knots. We both thought it a masterful scene, and great kudos to Spall and to director Mike Leigh.
Although there’s no great plot, the film is beautiful to watch, at times reproducing scenes from Turner’s oeuvre, such as “Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway,” and “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up.” It does show us some of Turner’s evolution as an artist, evolving from England’s premier painter of seascapes to an experimental pre-Impressionist whose work ceased to be understood by the average viewer. Leigh shows us Turner as a tireless worker, constantly either painting, or hiking along the coasts seeking new visions to capture. We see why he was called the original “painter of light,” and behold his mastery of atmosphere—sky, spray, steam, smoke, and storm—which galvanized the static landscape/seascape form.
For those who know some history of art, it’s also fun to see Turner’s contemporaries brought to life, even as cameos: John Constable, Benjamin Robert Haydon, William Beechey, John Edward Carew, and others figures of the art world, such as the Ruskin family, and Turner’s friend and frequent patron, the 3rd Earl of Egremont.
Recommended for fans of the art of painting, and of the art of the cinema.
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