Mr Turner (12A)

Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring Timothy Spall, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson
Picturehouse, Liverpool
From 30th October 2014

Reviewed by Joe Coventry


Mike Leigh has done it again. The master of scene setting in the generic British manner, his not always gentle films capture the essential qualities of our way of life and this season's blockbuster is no exception.

Turner is brilliantly played by Timothy Spall as a brusque, cantankerous and curmudgeonly man in middle age, living for his drawings and paintings with only a soft spot for his father, also named Billy. They can both eat like horses, (but not horse meat, of course!) and drink alcohol like fishes. The film starts with his return from Holland, where he has been to sketch in the light of the vast open landscapes and amid fears that his ship had sunk in a storm. They catch up as they tuck into pigs cheek for dinner.

His dowdy housemaid Atkinson at his London studio is treated with disdain and contempt, but is more than willing to have any crumbs from his sexual table. This is more than his estranged shrew of a wife and his daughters and grandchild get, as he shuns them, to get on with his life's work.

Turner Snr does all the spadework acquiring materials and stretching the canvases but the meticulous artist buys his own paints from an Italian emporium and all goes well, as he rises in the artistic world, until his father's death from bronchitis.

With little to tie him down Turner goes to Margate to find a B&B on the front and ends up at Mrs Booth's (Bailey), as Mr Mallard, wanting to be left alone but eventually chatting after dinner with the husband over how the Slave Trade aided the Capitalist boom.

Some of the 'surplus' commodities became the inspiration for his painting 'Slavers Throwing Overboard The Dead And The Dying - Typhoon Coming On.' Above all though it is the sun and the quality of light that captivates him at the coast and the real time photography also captures it.

Now his studio is often visited by the rich and famous, with buyers anxious to purchase the new qualities of opacity, flatness and lack of depth in his white or cream spit smeared hazy vistas with no depth or point of focus in them. He displays at a Royal Academy showing where the toast of artistic endeavour are on show. A young Queen Victoria rounds on his seascapes with abhorrence, while artists in the conventional style go unscathed.

Turner's nemesis, Constable, is his antithesis in style and content; the 'Biscuit Tin' lid style of Flatford Mill or The Haywain being a million miles from the former's fascination with movement and ethereal light in his ground breaking Rain, Steam Speed capturing a train on a viaduct.

Their rivalry never gets in the way here though. Instinctively Turner transforms Haydon's completed scene of ships at rest with a splodge of red paint to the gasps and admiration of those around him, as his status is assured.

Having now become a favourite of Ruskin at Brantwood in the Lake District, he is able to explore and capture the mountain terrain while eating high on the hog and holding his own in cultural debate. His down to earth background and mettle shine through when Ruskin is waxing lyrical about French artistic painting styles. Interrupting the flow of eloquence Turner asks "Can you tell me the difference between a steak pie and a veal pie?" To which, the critic is completely stymied.

The women in his life keep coming and going. He is not averse to calling in a brothel to draw the 'girls', or even dead bodies in the street and has now settled in as Mrs Booth's other half. His heart failing from too hectic a lifestyle, they move closer to London, but his best days are over.

Ever the peoples artist, despite being pilloried even in the music hall, he shuns a fortune so that his works can be left to a grateful nation, and grateful we are; his stunning Fighting Temeraire, equally fabulous in the camera shot evening live take, shows what a great talent he was. But he has to acknowledge that with the invention of the daguerreotype, the writing for him is on the wall.

It's a long haul at over 150 minutes but it's captivating stuff.In effortlessly capturing the different layers in our society from the most haughty and arrogant to those at the bottom of the pile Leigh evokes an era, gone forever, but to which it is still possible to relate. The easy going narrative and quaint double entendes add an infectious dimension to the screenplay and the good acting all round.

If Spall is a bit irritating with his 'hrnfhing' so much the better. He's portraying a real person and we all have our own peccadillos; none more so than some of the this capacity Silver Screen audience who talked through the film, heatedly walked out arguing, or who had forgotten to turn off their mobile phones.

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