It can be tempting, when producing a biopic, to focus almost entirely on the positives (see Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist). But in his critically-acclaimed film Mr Turner, Mike Leigh gives us a refreshingly honest character study of his subject, the artist JMW Turner.
Starting with a perfectly-conceived shot of the watery Dutch lowlands, we are introduced to Turner – played by the brilliant Timothy Spall – who is painting lush green fields, farm girls and windmills. He seems to be in his element as he captures the iridescent light which surrounds him.
All this contrasts with Turner’s return to his somewhat chaotic life in London. Grunting and grumpy, he refuses to acknowledge his former wife and daughters and seeks sexual gratification from his housemaid, Hannah Danby (played by Dorothy Atkinson). His painting technique often looks a little ham-fisted and in one scene he spits straight onto the canvas, making it difficult to imagine how he produced such fine pieces.
But what emerges is not simply a caricature but something altogether more complex. Despite his gruffness he is also sensitive and enjoys a tender bond with his father. Later he forms a close relationship with Mrs Booth, the twice-widowed landlady who runs the boarding house in Margate where he found inspiration for his seascapes. And, in an act of philanthropy, he rejects an offer from someone who wants to buy all his work, saying that it will be left to the British public.
There are also some wonderful moments which show Turner’s development as an artist. He is enthralled when the scientist Mary Somerville showed him how a prism can create a spectrum of colours. Unlike some Romantic artists – notably William Blake – Turner did not fear industrialisation; indeed he was excited by the new railways and the construction of London’s Crystal Palace, used to house the Great Exhibition.
Poignantly, however, we see Turner discovering the newly-invented camera and while it holds a fascination for him he also senses that it will change art as he declares, ‘I’m finished’. Little does he realise that his work would go on to inspire the impressionists whose work evolved into the non-representational art that became synonymous with modernism, cubism, formalism and other major movements.
Ultimately, this is a hugely enjoyable film, which does not fawn nor judge its subject. The dialogue, with its archaic lexicon, is superb as is the period detail. But what really stood out to me was the startling cinematography, with land and seascapes bathed in the sort of light that Turner himself might have imagined.
Mr Turner is showing at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema until 20th November.