Film review: Mr Turner

Mike Leigh's film will help make the artist one of the more recognisable painters of the 19th century.

Mr Turner
Directed by Mike Leigh 

The great British artist JMW Turner has always been one of the 19th century favourites, partly because of the huge collection of more than 1000 paintings and drawing he bequeathed to the nation on his death, many of which are on permanent display at Tate Britain. 

This grand gesture features near the end of Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner, where a wealthy businessman offers Turner £100,000 for all his remaining work.

The artist declines the offer, preferring the collection to be seen by the public. In his day Turner commanded huge prices and today he is highest selling pre-20th century British artists with his 1835 painting “Rome, from Mount Aventine” auctioned this year for £33.3 million.

Mike Leigh’s film will help make Turner one of the more recognisable painters of his time even if it does reinforce the idea of artists as slightly mad, eccentric and even a bit deviant.

The film covers the last years of Turner’s life when he was regarded as one of the great artists of his time and we are presented with a portrait that attempts to understand the man as well the art he produced.

Timothy Spall as Turner has an Oscar in the bag or at least a Bafta. His recreation of the artist is extraordinary. The croaky voice and guttural noises, the purposeful gait, the searching eyes and the expressive hands all build the sense of a driven, creative force.

The man is not just pure genius, he is also a flawed character. He demonstrates a ruthless dedication to his art in which he uses people and refuses to acknowledge his responsibilities – his family are excluded from his personal life while one of his nieces whom he occasionally exploits sexually works as his housemaid.

While he visits brothels it appears it is only to be able to use the girls as nude models although he never produced any paintings based on these studies.

When he does form a relationship in later life with a Mrs Booth he keeps it secret from the world, establishing her in a separate house in London, finding in her a closeness he has never previously experienced.

While he seems to be antisocial and uncaring, there are times when he shows another side. He is distraught when his father dies and he shows a tender, emotional side when he sings a croaky version of a Purcell aria.

While we get to see full scale versions of the paintings, we also get to see the actual landscapes as Turner saw them, with Leigh producing hazy dramatic sunsets, violent storms at sea and an almost impressionist approach to they way light transforms a scene.

The film recreates the scene of Turner witnessing a British warship, The Fighting Temeraire, being towed to its final berth and then his subsequent painting of the scene; we al;so see his fascination with the new steam trains which he turns into the painting “Rain Steam, and Speed.”

A sequence set at Petworth where he painted on many occasions provides not only a glimpse of the original paintings commissioned for the house but also a stunning view of the parkland which Turner on many occasion painted.

We also see Turner’s interest in the science of light, with a demonstration conducted by the Scottish scientist Mary Somerville and his interest in the emerging craft of photography in visiting a local daguerreotype studio.

All this builds a complex portrait of the artist as visionary, thinkers and practical professional. The film recounts several of the artists encounters with his fellow artists, including what seems to be a long-running dispute with Benjamin Haydon over what constitutes art and he engages in banter with artists such as John Constable at Royal Academy hangings.

The famous critic John Ruskin appears as a young man, greatly admiring the artist's work but his expounding on the subject make him out to be a snobbish intellectual.

One of the more dramatic events which shows the artist's showmanship is seen in one of the Royal Academy scenes.

Noticing that his rather serene seascape was not as dramatic as many of the other works in the show, he added a large blob of red paint to the foreground which he cleverly turned into a red buoy, adding drama to the work and to his reputation.

As well as a cast of fellow painters and other notables, the film features Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visiting the Royal Academy and dismissing Turner's work.

Not only is the film a great study of an artist and the creative forces which drove him, it is also a remarkable snapshot of mid-19th century Britain.