We have to confess we approached Mr Turner feeling somewhat negative. We’re no philistine, but 2 ½ hours on the life of a painter? Who, to our knowledge, wasn’t in the habit of doing anything particularly exciting like cutting his ear off or harbouring absinthe/opium habits? What we hadn’t taken into account is Mr Turner is written and directed by Mike Leigh.
We meet William Turner (Timothy Spall), the celebrated painter of land and seascapes, at the height of his career. He is moneyed and successful. He lives with his father in a large and comfortable London house and has two illegitimate daughters by Sarah Denby (Ruth Sheen) and a new grandchild, whose existence he publicly denies. Brusque to the point of rudeness, solitary and bumptious, he is a curious individual, evidently damaged by being left by his mother early in life.
So what happens? Well, tangibly not a lot. We follow Turner’s daily life, his visits to the Royal Academy where he insults and taunts his great rival Constable. His trips to Margate where he found inspiration for his seascapes and a rare happy relationship with a widow, Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey). We see him suffer pretentious salons where the great and not so great pompously discuss art and philosophy.
It’s tremendous. Like a cross between Jane Austen and Blackadder, it possesses a marvellously witty script that is somehow both contemporary and period, completely bringing to life the social and artistic circles of the day in all their bickering, hierarchical glory. But it’s not without emotion. His callous, borderline cruel treatment of others is held up for our observation and judgment. Anchored by a memorably eccentric, growling, bestial performance from Timothy Spall, comprising porcine grunts, sagging jowls and disparaging eye rolls, a trip round the Tate Gallery will never be quite the same again.
UK release 31 October