Timothy Spall picked up best actor at Cannes for his career-topping performance as JMW Turner in Mike Leigh’s meticulous biopic of the great Romantic painter; adopting an hilarious conversation killing guttural grunt but always speaking volumes with his fierce jowls and protruding lower lip.
This is Turner at the height of his powers as times-were-a-changing in 19th century Europe; a transition that Turner assimilated into his paintings en route to a new pared down semi-abstraction, which proved too much for the conservative art establishment and an arrogant/obtuse Queen Vic.
And he combined a blunt coarseness with a commanding authority that proved all conquering in high society and his private life, the epitome of the self-made Victorian man but, in Turner’s case, drifting unnervingly from master to metaphorical monster, at least, when judged by today’s standards.
We see him using a passive housekeeper for careless sex – just about on the right side of consent – and treating his former mistress and their children as an annoyance but showing genuine tenderness towards his father and a Margate landlady whom he later married; such contradictions emanating from an egocentricity that some would say is a prerequisite for ‘greatness’.
And Turner’s own attitude towards other canonical artists is fascinating; defending Claude’s 16th century classical landscapes to the hilt during a parlour debate but mocking his own contemporary, John Constable, albeit with a hint of the perverse back handed compliment; ignoring other peers almost entirely, too insignificant even for ridicule.
Leigh joins the party with some sardonic finger pointing of his own, portraying John Ruskin as a patronising hoity-toity buffoon with an absurdly exaggerated aristocratic lisp – how cwuel – and, obviously, pouring scorn on all critics at that same time.
It was a horrified Ruskin who allegedly destroyed a portfolio of Turner’s secret pornographic paintings after the artist’s death and the film’s most sombre scene has Turner unable to contain his own self-loathing when painting a young prostitute offering extras in a backstreet brothel.
This is the third time that Leigh has moved away from his stylised contemporary dramas and he has superbly recreated Victorian London and the settings for Turner’s paintings alongside Spall’s brilliant characterisation of the man himself. There’s just one small gripe – a buffoon’s PoV, Mr Leigh – Turner’s death scene, which echoes his father’s death earlier in proceedings, is disproportionately long and loses a little dramatic impetus along the way. But otherwise, it’s a fine achievement.
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