Mike Leigh’s biopic of JMW Turner is a real tour de force, full of beauty and humour and with a magnificent lead performance from Timothy Spall.
Leigh immerses us in the last 25 years of Turner’s life, when he’s already found success but is craving something more – the love of a good woman, a life away from the social bores that he is surrounded by and a desire to be more experimental on canvas than his contemporaries are ready for. He’s an outsider, grumpily contending with sycophants and leeches (Martin Savage’s Haydon is great) and happy only when he’s in front of a canvas. For a supremely talented man, Turner was remarkably humble.
Spall is in his element as Turner, grunting and snorting his way through the script with glee – it’s a performance with Bafta written through it like a stick of Margate rock. He blusters his way through the film with tenderness, giving this brusque, uneven genius a real heart. When he finds contentment with Mrs Booth, his Margate landlady, his clumsy declaration of love is first amusing, then genuinely touching.
The entire cast is immaculate, not least Dorothy Atkinson as Danby, Turner’s maid who is the recipient of his rather less than romantic attentions from time to time (a bit like being mounted by a warthog with bronchitis), and Joshua McGuire brings a bit of Rik from the Young Ones to art critic and insufferable big head John Ruskin. I loved Paul Jesson too as his elderly doting father, determined to support his talented son until the end.
This is Leigh’s first digital film, and he’s made the most of it with the help of Dick Pope’s immaculate cinematography. You’re immersed in Turner’s paintings from the opening scene, the colours and the light are wonderful – the recreation of The Fighting Temeraire in particular will make you gasp, it’s just stunning. This is a film to luxuriate in, funny, touching and strangely soothing.
My one gripe is that at nearly 150 minutes it’s overlong, and I have to admit to a bit of relief when Turner finally popped his clogs and I could lift my rear end from the torture of the Odeon West End’s uncomfortable seats. But that aside, this is without doubt Leigh’s masterpiece: a masterful portrayal of one of our greatest artists by one of our greatest artists.