Beginning with Turner in middle age, Mike Leigh presents a series of vignettes that build, like paint on canvas, to create a complex portrait of renowned English artist and “painter of light”, J.M. Turner. The lack of backstory, and fractured narrative, will leave those without prior knowledge all at sea, anchored only by Timothy Spall’s warts n’ all portrayal of a man who says of himself: “When I peruse myself in a looking glass, I see a gargoyle.”
Spall grabs the role with gusto, grunting, snorting and waddling, top hatted, umbrella in hand, reminiscent of Danny deVito’s Penguin in Batman Returns. It’s a committed performance, but the supporting cast veers wildly between subtlety and caricature. Lisping art critic toff John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), comes across as a character straight from Life of Brian, whilst Turner’s housekeeper, Mrs Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), resembles Mrs Doyle, from TV comedy Father Ted.
Overly-lengthy running time and tonal shifts aside, there are many poignant scenes: Turner strapped to a ship’s mast in a storm at sea, witnessing the ravages of nature first hand; visiting brothels to sketch life models; having his portrait taken by a newfangled “camera”; mourning the death of his beloved father. The evocation of the man and his time is sublime. Dick Pope’s cinematography emulates Turner’s greatest works, and the 1850s period setting is captured in sumptuous detail. Nonetheless, to some, as a young Queen Victoria says of Turner’s paintings, the result may seem little more than “a dirty yellow mess”.
‘Mr. Turner’ Movie Times