This biopic of the renowned British artist J. M. W. Turner is a labour of love from writer-director Mike Leigh and his lead actor of choice, Timothy Spall. Widely hyped as their joint masterpiece, it did not prove popular, largely because it is far from a conventional biography. Focussing on the last quarter of the artist's life before his death in 1851, its 150-minute running time alienated movie-goers who prefer films that tell a story. What Leigh provides instead is a series of vignettes illustrating different facets of Turner's life, with little linear connection between the various parts. However, like Gestalt theory, these do indeed create a rounded portrait of a talented but eccentric man.
The film was Oscar-nominated for cinematography, costume, original score, and production design, winning none of these. It did not receive any acting nominations, although one might have hoped that Spall would be recognised after a long and remarkable career and who even learned to paint for this role. His bulky physique morphs readily into the gruff, matter-of-fact genius who travelled widely with his sketchpad and painted some of the most romantic landscapes ever. Turner was an accomplished Impressionist before his time. The cinematography is in fact brilliantly done and the outdoor scenes can accurately be described as 'Turner-esque' in their beauty. As his purported last words would have it "The sun is God" and we revel in the light.
However in the large and well-cast ensemble, my top kudos would go to Dorothy Atkinson, who plays his drab, devoted, and obviously love-struck housekeeper Hannah, whom Turner takes for granted, barely notices or communicates with, and whom he uses for rough sex when the urge arises. For my money, she steals every scene in which she appears with her expressive face counterpointing the action. The artist was, it would seem, something of a lecher, denying his estranged and bitter wife and daughters -- claiming blithely that he never had any children. He eventually takes up with his occasional Margate landlady Sophia Booth (well-played by Marion Bailey) to whom he introduces himself initially as Mr Mallard (she subsequently remembers him as Mr Duckworth) and who has little idea of his fame before he is recognised by a local doctor. They live together on and off through his death and her devotion does manage to partially soften his prickly demeanour; as far as his Chelsea Embankment neighbours are concerned he is the devoted Mr. Booth.
In between there are telling tableaux of his interaction with other artists of the period at the Royal Academy, his championing by the effete art critic Ruskin (a nice turn from Joshua McGuire), his having his portrait taken by one of the new-fangled cameras (and returning to have another taken with the reluctant Sophia), attending a theatrical performance where both he and Ruskin are satirised, and the sickly Hannah's heartbreak on discovering that he is shacked up with another doting woman. I found the movie largely satisfying, since the whole certainly does add up to far more than the sum of its parts.
Next week my annual picks for British television viewing over the Christmas period...