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  Mr. Turner Painter Man
Year: 2014
Director: Mike Leigh
Stars: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Karl Johnson, Ruth Sheen, Sandy Foster, Amy Dawson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Richard Bremmer, Niall Buggy, Fred Pearson, Tom Edden, Jamie Thomas King, James Fleet, Fenella Woolgar
Genre: Historical, BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: In the early-to-mid nineteenth century, J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) was one of the most famous artists in Britain, and his fame stretched ever farther, but he was a wilful, bullheaded man who had a habit of doing as he pleased if it meant following his muse to wherever it may lead. In the 1820s, he had been in Holland painting landscapes, an example of how that impulse took him far and wide, though he returned to London and his housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) who was always loyal, always taking care of him no matter that her assistance was not reciprocated often with affection. His father William (Paul Jesson) was there for him too, they were very close, closer than Turner was to his ex (Ruth Sheen) and their two daughters, in fact, much to her disdain...

Following his other movie set around two hundred years before, the Gilbert and Sullivan comedy drama Topsy-Turvy, director Mike Leigh was drawn back to the century by his interest in recreating the era of the famed painter Turner who even today, a long time after his death, is spoken of in glowing terms though as Leigh was careful to point out that was not always the case when he was alive. He was rewarded with not only another highly praised work, but the satisfaction he had regenerated interest in his subject's paintings, though that was not to say everyone was keen on how he had presented it, with some who knew about the artist wondering how Leigh could have missed out certain bits, and some others finding the whole experience offputting.

Much of that latter reaction was down to the director plunging the viewer straight into the milieu of the past with no moves to modernise the story or how it was presented. In episodic fashion, various chronological events were summoned up and the audience might have found themselves having to work a little harder than usual to see the points and themes conveyed, though all were agreed Timothy Spall peerlessly immersed himself in the title role, resembling a Hogarth or Gillray caricature from an earlier era. Bringing new meaning to the word "gruff", he approached the part with some extraordinary noises, grunting and huffing and puffing and so forth, which in its way was able to concoct a sense of the man and his era as accomplished as Leigh was with his exquisite production design and Dick Pope's glowing cinematography.

As to those themes, the major one from the outset was how Turner defined himself by the women in his life. Though we do not see much of the ex-mistress, the scathing expression of disgust for his lack of interest in her and his family makes him out to be an uncaring misogynist - when he received news he missed his offspring's funeral he numbly acknowledges he was busy painting, which in another film would have made him the villain of the piece. Yet elsewhere we see his need for female company even if he does apparently take them for granted once they have fallen under his spell, from the cowed Hannah whose lack of a life outside her master is one of the most poignant consequences, to the landlady, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), of a Margate guesthouse Turner becomes very close to after visiting under an alias for more pictures of the sea and the ships.

All this indicates his complexity (and there were far more women in his orbit than Leigh had the space to allot to), but he was no tortured artist, as the film pours scorn on the idea that to create greatness you must be suffering. There is one character who really is a tortured artist, Haydon (Martin Savage), but the fruits of his labour are mediocre at best, and Turner's encounters with him are played for laughs until we recognise maybe Haydon wasn't entirely a figure of fun as we took him for. The famous instance of Turner ridiculing Constable (James Fleet) by adding a splodge of red to one of his own paintings is recreated, but later we see Turner ridiculed himself by satirists and critics, something dear to Leigh's heart (this was the man who made Happy-Go-Lucky as a direct riposte to the critics who accused him of miserabilism), especially when we can see the classic paintings were ahead of their time and preferable to the contemporaries rendered as realistically as possible. If you do spend the last half hour wondering when the ailing Turner will die, this was absorbing nevertheless. Music by Gary Yershon.

[Entertainment One's DVD has featurettes and deleted scenes as extras on a two-disc package.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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