Friday, November 07, 2014

Mr Turner, I Presume

´╗┐In Mike Leigh's new biopic, we're given an idea of JMW Turner's priorities from the outset. After a brief scene that situates him as a remote figure studying a Dutch landscape, he returns to his house in London, where he gropes his compliant maid, reassures his father, who acts as his manservant, that he was a safe distance from a fatal explosion much in the news, and heads straight for the easel. Artists, eh? Selfish buggers.

The film stitches together vignettes from the final years of Turner's life, showing him producing a series of masterworks,visiting sponsors, at home in banter and rivalry of the Royal Academy, and gradually falling in love with the twice-widowed Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey), the Margate landlady with whom he would live out his last years in Chelsea, growing ever more crankier and spurning his maid and his common law wife and daughters. Timothy Spall gives an award-winning performance of the artist as a huffing and grunting outsider with bulging eyes and pendulous lower lip. A lonely man armoured in gruff self-confidence, who only occasionally reveals his inner self - when he breaks down while sketching a prostitute after the death of his father, or the tenderness with which he sings, in a reverent but cracked baritone, his favourite Purcell aria.

There's no through plot, except that of Turner's increasing solitude and eccentricity as artistic fashion leaves him behind, he becomes, in the public eye, a caricature, and distances himself from almost everyone but his beloved Mrs Booth. You have to give yourself up to its flow, immerse yourself in its translucent depictions of English landscapes and riverlight. Leigh uses CGI to recreate the moment that Turner reproduced in The Fighting Temeraire, when a warship that fought at Trafalgar is towed down the Thames towards the breaker's yard. Turner's friends, out on the river with him in a skiff, remark on the end of an era; Turner is more interested in the steam tug towing the hulk, and sets it at the centre of his painting.

It's one of the moments when we are allowed a glimpse inside Turner's creative process. Otherwise, we see what he's sees, and see how he translates scenes onto the canvas, stabbing and sweeping with his brush, spitting on oils to make them flow into his great falls and flows of luminous colour, but the psychological process of creativity - of translation - remains unexplained. It's a romantic view of the creative genius: a remote, alien figure unable to form proper relationships because he is consumed by his art. But it's also how Turner happened to live his life, vividly captured in this long, meditative film, and beautifully shot by cinematographer Dick Pope in the style of Turner's paintings, full of misty white and gold. See it on the biggest screen you can find.

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