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Mr Turner PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
15 11 2014

ImageDirected by Mike Leigh

There's something oddly exhilarating about seeing a film that almost everyone else, from hard-bitten critics to your everyday cinemagoer, rates as one of the very best of the year... and being underwhelmed. The fact it has happened twice this week is almost too much excitement to take. First there was Russian heavyweight Leviathan. But to begin nearer home... Mr Turner (Metacritic score 97%, Rotten Tomatoes 98%) close contender for this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes, where Timothy Spall won best actor award for his portrayal of the painter, seems beyond criticism wherever you look. So as Spall shambled and growled and huffed his way through a plot that stayed as monotonous as his portrayal I waited, expecting some kind of epiphany to arrive, one of those magical developments that would take me up and bring me close to the work or the man. But it never came.

It's extremely beautiful - how could it not be about such an artist - and the recreation of the world of the mid-C19th is meticulous (though perhaps a little too clean), but there's very little to suggest where the artist's amazing vision came from. We meet him mid-career, already famous, if seen as something of an oddity by the art establishment, a great selfish porcine lump of a man, as is underlined when Turner Senior (formerly a barber) shaves a pig's face in very much the same way as he does his son's. His sexuality is animal and unloving, randomly shagging the faithful maid who clearly longs for affection from him, and in his self-absorption he works his already ailing father into the grave fetching and carrying for him (for quite a long time I thought the character was a servant). The greatest men can be as flawed as this, sure, but I never seemed to glimpse the other side of the coin that makes genius what it is.

Timothy Spall, a Leigh regular, can be a marvellously subtle actor, but I rarely saw anything that special here, and the scowls and grunts and snorts became horribly predictable and, let's face it, tedious. Does the character change or develop over the years? No. There's little sense of time passing, yet it spans a period from the late 1820s to his death in 1851, a time in which his work moved from florid romanticism to almost abstract arrangements of colour and light. But this progress is lost somehow in the plodding narrative. Behind the snuffling and preoccupied expression he's opaque, essentially unknowable, and the little moments of emotion aren't enough to convey any real illumination. He howls for his father after his death, he weeps unexpectedly over a young prostitute, but the only truly moving scene for me was when he joins in with faltering notes to a piano rendition of Purcell's Dido's Lament, a moment of revelation of an inner, wordless sorrow.

Most enjoyable in fact are the sections of the film in which he is an ensemble player - the Royal Academy stuffiness is entertaining, and as in his previous Topsy Turvy, Leigh has a good eye for Victorian fussiness. Sometimes the laughs come cheap though - in particular the weird presentation of Ruskin as a vapid, lisping popinjay. Certainly he was a very odd, very flawed man, but he is the only one speaking of what it actually is that makes the pictures great, whereas we're obviously meant to be satisfied that they are so just because of Turner's strong engagement with the subjects and his unorthodox methods. Greatness is more than that, even if it remains a mystery to the artist. In fact it was Ruskin who advocated and thereby popularised Turner's work during the later years when it became more abstract and less acceptable to the establishment. It could be that no one would have bothered making a film about Turner today at all if it hadn't been for Ruskin.

Lesley Manville does a neat little turn as Mary Somerville the scientist who visits to demonstrate her findings about light, and Dorothy Atkinson is remarkable as Turner's maid, whose painful devotion is a constant unnoticed rebuke to the great man. Marion Bailey as Mrs Booth, the widow with whom he finally ‘settles down', makes their unlikely relationship credible, and Martin Savage brings a welcome liveliness as the troubled painter Haydon, who was to commit suicide some years before Turner's death. But Mr Turner - to be honest I got bored with him. Just go and look at the pictures instead!

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle 14 October 2014

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