Lavish, but oh so drawn out. Mike Leigh writes and directs this biography of English watercolour master Joseph Mallord William Turner, all focused on his late middle age, and I suspect even if you weren’t aware he was behind the camera you’d have a good chance of guessing since it follows his favourite themes of misery, death, and intermittent sex to briefly alleviate the gloom – all in sequential rotation. Timothy Spall plays the man himself, and whilst Spall is a fantastic actor and this is a well researched and very interesting interpretation, I’m not entirely convinced it’s a good one. Turner is displayed as conspicuously porcine, grunting and partially snarling when he’s not throwing overly large words at the unsuspecting people around him, or indulging in verbosity if you prefer, and all of this appears to fit eye witness accounts of the man – and perhaps that is the problem, we have an outward representation of someone that’s been combined with Leigh’s somewhat definitively depressing outlook on life and that’s about it, we never really feel like we’re getting to the heart of the real person.
There are lots of nice scenic shots but they are so obviously staged, with horses running in unison into the frame on cue etc., and the whole film never quite escapes that feeling of artificiality. Not to mention it’s really long and the opening hour or so is interminably dull. It does, however, have more success in creating a realistic impression of the arts scene at the time, as we see Turner mix, as best he can, with his contemporaries and he displays his guile and skill in the infamous anecdote often told where he shows off in front of rival Constable, seeming to deface his own work in the gallery only to return later and finish it off, delivering his coup de grâce to an appreciative audience. A lot of work and study has clearly gone into this and certainly some merit is here to be found, just be prepared for a rather laborious search for it. Incidentally, the Scottish National Gallery holds roughly forty of Turner’s works and they often appear on display at some point during the year for anyone interested in viewing them – at least partially fulfilling for these paintings the artist’s wish that his work be permanently bequeathed to, and put on display for, the British nation. Many of the others ended up in collections scattered around the globe.