STORY: This is a detailed portrayal – flaws included – of the last 25 years of romanticist British painter J. M. W. Turner’s life. Apart from his style – innovative use of illumination and broad strokes – we also get a revealing insight into his personal journey.
REVIEW: Timothy Spall’s depiction of Turner is in a word, earthy. The rotund artist’s vocabulary is frequently punctuated by a string of porcine grunts and growls, all delivered by this scowling, jowly and not very jolly man.
Unmarried, he lives in a well-appointed home looked after by his sad-eyed housekeeper Hannah (Atkinson) who he occasionally has sex with. She craves his affection, but for him, sex is just that. His beloved father William (Jesson) does the groceries and shares a buddy-like camaraderie with Turner. Not so with Turner’s former mistress Sarah (Sheen), angry with him for neglecting their kids.
What Turner lacks in terms of verbal expressiveness, he more than makes up for via his canvases. There too, he is unusual. Turner moistens dry parts of paint on his landscapes with spittle and, wielding his brush like a scalpel, stabs, scrapes and shapes blobs of paint into hazy sunset hues and masterful sunrises.
Despite its runtime and deliberately slow (Leigh clearly takes his time here) pace, both these factors are necessary for a story like this. After all, it harks back to an era when people rode in horse carriages and cameras (more precisely, the daguerreotype) were a new thing.
Turner was known for his use of light and yet, his own life had plenty of melancholic shades. A depressed soul, however, he was not. He slurs to a young woman at a posh dinner party one evening in between mouthfuls of custard and port, “loneliness and solitude are different.” Turner finally does find love and companionship with the widowed landlady, Mrs Booth (Bailey), of a place he often rented. He lives with her, but does not get married.
Apart from the fantastic characterizations and top-notch cinematography, the real beauty of Turner’s vision was his ability to find beauty in the seemingly ordinary.