This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 28th December 2014
If the thought of watching a two-and-a-half-hour biopic about a painter is as appetising as watching paint dry, then you underestimate the skills of film-maker Mike Leigh and his regular lineup.
With Timothy Spall (best known for Secrets & Lies, some Harry Potter films and two decades of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) in the titular role of JMW Turner, and cinematography which consciously evokes the great British painter’s seminal works, you’re in for a cinematic treat.
Leigh’s previous portrait of an artist (actually, two of them) was the wonderful Topsy-Turvy, an exhilarating backstage pass into the world of Gilbert and Sullivan, complete with period costuming and brilliantly executed musical numbers.
It’s a bit harder to deliver the same thrill in watching JMW brandish the brush, but at least Spall spent two years learning the craft so that when he spits on his canvas and smudges a skyline, he really does look like he knows what he’s doing.
However, this is more about the painter as personage, and it is a portly, grunting, actually rather grotesque gentleman who transports us through the lengthy running time.
Despite appearing to modern audiences as something of a turn-off, the real Turner was evidently charming enough to fall into a happily domestic relationship with a kindly widow. Meanwhile, the film’s artistic license suggests his willingly-groped housekeeper back in London also thought he was catnip.
Whomever the “real Turner”, Spall’s characterisation is captivating. Fittingly for a leading man who was spared leading man good looks, Spall imbues his protagonist with deadpan humour and occasional pathos – as dismissive as Turner is of his borne family, the relationship with his father is lovely.
He has excellent support in the form of the comely Marion Bailey as Mrs Booth, and although some of the other female players come off as a bit Mike-Leigh-screechy or cartoonish, it’s all nonetheless jolly good fun.
Notably, the film looks incredible. Using Turner’s signature colour palette and widescreen sensibility, we are treated to lengthy panoramas and camera shots held long enough for the actors to let loose as they would on the stage. It means some scenes feel a little long-winded – but they are promptly followed by some light, engaging whimsy (Turner’s inaugural visit to a photographic studio is wonderful) to propel things forward again. Mr Turner is a treat.