Timothy Spall plays JMW Turner in Mr Turner. He is superb and on his own is worth the price of admission. Recognition for his performance is already becoming evident. The 57-year-old actor has been lauded for his turn in Mr Turner by America’s National Society of Film Critics, named Best Actor. An Academy award must surely follow.
But you have to hope he’s not getting paid by the word. For the most part, all that Turner does in the film is grunt. They are particularly eloquent grunts to be sure. The one that Turner utters at seeing the work of Pre-Raphaelites displayed at the Royal Academy is particularly so. Next to his own work, Turner must have thought that of the Pre-Raphaelites to be mannered and effete. The film is dominated by Spall whose curmudgeon-like Turner often appears only barely able to tolerate the company of others. He certainly doesn’t see fit to communicate with most of them. Spall plays a character with great sympathy and provides a riveting portrayal of a genius forced to live in a mundane world but also able to capture its great beauty. It is difficult not to sympathise with him over his broken relationship with his mistress Sarah Danby. It is harder to sympathise with his exploitation of his housekeeper Hannah Danby, played by Dorothy Atkinson.
There is a touching scene between Hannah and Turner where Turner returns from an overseas trip and they go through a list of the painting materials that Hannah has been purchasing and storing for his return. She’s done it perfectly (and one suspects, lovingly), everything is in place but all this goes unacknowledged by Turner The scene is typical of much of the film which is mainly a series of brilliant vignettes ,mostly unconnected. There is an exquisitely painful scene where Turner and a number of his painting colleagues dine at the home of John Ruskin played by Joshua McGuire. Ruskin is played as a lisping narcissist and is irritating to such an extent that Turner makes one of his few multi-sentence utterances of the film. The character and portrayal of Ruskin highlights a particular difficulty with the film, perhaps not so much a difficulty, as a lost opportunity. In the outstanding Amadeus, F. Murray Abraham plays Antonio Salieri, a classical composer, conductor and teacher and contemporary of Mozart.
In the film, which portrays Salieri as intensely jealous of Mozart’s abilities, Salieri provides a voice-over commentary on Mozart’s music and the events at court. This device works brilliantly because, as a composer, Salieri recognises Mozart ‘s towering genius and provides a professional’s commentary on Mozart’s music. It’s a pity that director Mike Leigh did not find a way to use Ruskin in a similar way in Mr Turner. After all, Ruskin was a major art critic of the time, had written books about Turner and defended him against his critics. He also catalogued Turner’s work after his death. Given his portrayal in the film, you are left with the feeling that he is dealt with rather badly. And he would have been a wonderful commentator on Turner’s work, perhaps none better. Because of this, the film lacks a prospective, particularly a contemporary prospective, on Turner’s work. We learning little of his success as a painter and, in particular, the way he was regarded by his contemporaries, particularly the Royal Academy, of which he was a member.
There are a number of scenes that are shot in a Royal Academy exhibition and there is a particularly brilliant sequence where John Constable is putting finishing touches on his painting The Opening of Waterloo Bridge scene from Whitehall Stairs.
It’s a fussy painting, not one of Constable’s best. But Mike Leigh has chosen it perfectly to capture the artist’s nervous mood. It is next to, but below, Turner’s painting the Boat and Red Buoy in a Choppy Sea which is “on the line” the most prestigious position for painting freehand in the Royal Academy. At this stage, Turner’s painting has not got the red for in the foreground. After watching Constable’s efforts and in a supremely contemptuous gesture, Turner steps up to his painting and slaps a blob of red paint in the foreground and walks off. Onlookers are puzzled and wonder out loud why he would spoil a masterpiece. Some time later, Turner returns and, in a single gesture, reshapes the red dab of as the buoy, transforming the whole painting. It’s a wonderful piece of showmanship and says much as about the rivalry between Constable and Turner as it does about Turner’s artistic skill and judgement.
There are numerous scenes in the film that are beautifully shot and which are designed to be indicative of the types of landscapes and seascapes that Turner painted. One of the most noticeable is win Turner and his friends are out in a rowing boat and see the Fighting Temaraire.
It would have been wonderful for one of Turner’s companions in the rowboat to have been able to comment on how this scene turned into this painting.
Many of these scenes show Turner viewing and sketching.
But we never see his notebooks or his sketches. There is a wonderful shot of the train steaming through the English country side.
This is clearly the forerunner of Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, painted in 1844.
Perhaps Turner would have looked at us rather pityingly for asking for more explanations and the paintings provide.
What a wonderful opportunity to show the places that Turner went to, the sketches he took and then the final completed works. What a wonderful opportunity to show the workings of the mind of a genius. But Mike Leigh has passed up this opportunity. Perhaps it was a bridge too far.