Directed by Mike Leigh
Written by Mike Leigh
Music by Gary Yershon
Starring Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner
Paul Jesson as William Turner, senior
Dorothy Atkinson as Hannah Danby
Marion Bailey as Mrs Booth
Turner’s the name, painting’s the game
The reviews were all first-rate. Five stars abounded. “One of Mike Leigh’s three best films “ (and that is high praise indeed). Timothy Spall got Best Actor at Cannes. Dick Pope got a special cinematography award. It was nominated for Best Film, but didn’t win. We were looking forward to it.
First, it’s very long indeed at two and a half hours. When the Oscars come up, I’ll be amazed if Timothy Spall is not nominated there for his hawking, grunting, gobbing portrait of the artist as an old dog. I’ll be amazed if Dick Pope doesn’t get nominated for camerawork / lighting. It’s full of shimmering images to rival the original art. It’s laden with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos by the cream of British actors. All that is on the plus side. British cinema has done well with artist biopics. See Martin Freeman in Peter Greenaway’s Rembrandt biopic Nightwatching, and Domenic Cooper as A.J. Munnings in Summer in February. (Both reviewed on this blog). Turner is arguably, or even unarguably Britain’s greatest painter.
But is it really a “five star film?” In the first thirty minutes I was struggling to keep my eyes open in a 5 pm “bridge” showing where you most expect to be alert. Those first thirty minutes are boring and tedious and I began to dread another two hours to the point of contemplating leaving. Then you sort of, kinda, get into it. Not wholly, but it weaves its own magic, mainly around the sublime images centered on Spall’s extraordinary curmudgeon portrayal of the artist. It grows on you, but the enduring problem is the episodic nature. There is no clear narrative in these scenes from Turner’s declining years. It covers the last twenty-five years of his life leading up to his death in 1851. The story has no discernible arc.
The Royal Academy annual exhibition
There are some very amusing scenes at Royal Academy shows, but the biopic groan moments were all around:
Hello there, Ruskin.
Good day to you, Turner.
Morning, Constable / Morning, Turner
Sorry, even if you’re Mike Leigh (and I am not worthy to mention his name) you can’t get away with scripting like that even done as a joke, which it is. It’s just too reminiscent of that Monty Python sketch (Hello, Mrs Mozart. Oh, hello, Mrs Beethoven). You also have so many fleeting references, such as Mary Somerville, a woman scientist who knew Turner. You’d have to know his biography (Somerville College Oxford is named after her) to get the significance of her very short appearance in the story, let alone the parade of artists.
But those other parts lift it. Martin Savage is his painter pal Benjamin Haydon. James Fleet does an anxious John Constable. Lesley Manville (see Another Year) is Mary Somerville, Joshua McGuire (see Amadeus) is a hilarious Ruskin Jnr. Sinead Matthews does two minutes as a young and censorious Queen Vic who thinks Turner’s paintings a white and yellow mess. Sylvestra Le Touzel does Ruskin’s mum.
The play contains the “least erotic” consensual intercourse of the year when Turner screws his housekeeper, Hannah Danby, against a bookcase. Dorothy Artkinson is wonderful as the housekeeper who gradually gets to limp and lean more as her face dissolves in a mass of sores … I suspect her psoriasis was aggravated by mixing the white lead paint and blue cobalt and dealing with all the other noxious chemicals. I only understood Turner’s complex family relationships when I looked up his biography AFTER seeing it. For example he had two daughters by Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), and Hannah Danby, the housekeeper, is Sarah’s niece by marriage. Neither of us watching had worked that out, though they clearly knew each other. As with the parade of painters, there is too much assumed knowledge. The film worked in that I was inspired to come home and read up his biography, but that was again after the event. The centre of the story becomes his love affair with seaside landlady Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey)
There are memorable scenes, as when he visits a brothel to pose a prostitute while he made sketches. Hmm. The Royal Academy had had nude life classes even early in Turner’s career (he joined the academy aged fourteen). He could simply have hired an artist’s model. There is a very funny scene chez Ruskin when Ruskin senior, Mrs Ruskin and their precocious lisping art critic son sit around formally and discuss gooseberries while Spall does his trademarked grunts and harumphs. Every review mentions the scene where Turner had himself tied to the mast of a ship in a gale to experience a storm at sea, but while excellent it’s short, and unlinked at either end. It is just cut to.
The sort of shot that wins cinematography awards!
The film recreates Turner’s England in exceptional detail: costume, sets, ambience. The recreated theatre show (they were lampooning Turner’s art while he watched) was great, as are all of the outdoor scenes. It’s faithful in showing the inspirations for Turner’s greatest works. Artist biopics are quite obsessive in showing us how great works were created and tied to the story.
In the end, a disjointed narrative reduces ratings: the cut between Turner sailing on the steamship to visit Mrs Boothe and being there is so crudely abrupt, I thought a reel had broken. It’s half an hour too long. However, the death of Turner’s dad, then Turner’s spluttering and hawking induced by the tying to a mast, Turner’s illnesses and final death must rate as the best portrayals of bronchitis ever on screen.
Turner and Dad: both star bronchial acting
My DVD test? I doubt I’ll buy it. The gorgeous cinematography demands to be viewed in the cinema, and the somewhat disjointed narrative held me (eventually) in the dark in the centre of a row, but would be problematic with a pause control in my hand and the thought of a cup of tea. My companion thought it would have been better as a three part TV series, but I disagreed because part one would be too dull to pull you into parts two and three.