Gruffness personified is how I’d describe Timothy Spall in Mr Turner, so rough around the edges that even after a shave he resembles more a drooling St Bernard than one Britain’s greatest artists.
Mike Leigh’s biopic glows like the very scenes Turner was depicting, the new world is boldly treading into view and the old sadly withering, Turner stands at the precipice as an artist devoid of nostalgia or self absorption. Turner is troubled in the sense he struggles to create personal relationships but his artistic expression is in full flow and getting greater. He is successful, respected and darned sure of his talents. I would love to see Spall’s Turner meet Whishaw’s Keats, the results would be carnage.
Leigh’s past experience with Victorian drama in Topsy Turvy shows. His eye for period detail is sublime, not just for sets and costumes, but with sound and his choice of actors. The weezing and spluttering of the steam engines and Turner’s dialogue are genuinely mesmerising, as if the smoke and toxic spittle are physically showering us. Too often actors sound too well or look too modern, here, all look like they’ve lived and breathed the Victorian air and been ruined by it.
The film is as unselfconscious as Turner is, Leigh takes great pleasure in all the tropes of the biopic but pulls them off with such aplomb that you barely notice through the laughter. The moment when Turner, the art world’s equivalent to Noel Gallagher, guffaws loudly at an example of the Pre-Raphalite’s work is one of many brilliant touches that Leigh laces the film with. Although Mr Turner wears the cloak of the biopic it doesn’t feel as stuffy as some. It is frank about its character’s less attractive tropes and never shies away from giving us scope to dislike Turner.
If we are occasionally unsure of Turner, then we are never in doubt of our love for his second mistress Sophia Booth played by the wonderful Marion Bailey. Where Turner tests, she comforts, where he repulses, she glows as a picture of human kindness. At first I wasn’t sure why she was there, she seemed surplus to requirements but in a world where nearly everybody is sick, dying or living far too prosperously, her tameness is much appreciated. Turner uses her as an escape from this madness, as a place of solace: she loves him not his paintings.
Mr Turner is undoubtedly going to be nominated for Oscars, it feels like that kind of film and more than deserves it – especially Director, Actor and Cinematography – it is therefore not long until the daggers are out and it receives a backlash. Lets hope it weathers the storm because this is a staggering film, staggeringly executed.