third Turner exhibition in London in five years it is timely that Mike Leigh's latest film, which has just been released, is on the subject of Mr Turner. It stars Timothy Spall in the title roll, complete with top hat and grumpy expression as in the photo above (from here).
It is always dangerous to confuse historical films with documentaries, but Mike Leigh's style of directing focusses on character and uses improvisation techniques, so it is probably captures more of the truth of the people involved than many non-fictional accounts.
Timothy Spall is magic to watch, complete with a sound-track of different grunts. Think of a wild boar that has caught the smell of truffles and you'll get an idea. "Hmm", "errmm", "huram", "hurgggh", "grruhmmm" are just a few of the words in this extensive dictionary.
Spall's Turner is a man of few real words, relaxing only when talking to his dad or fellow artists at the Royal Academy about art. Unlike the contemporary John Martin (of which I've blogged before) he held no famous dinner parties but rather stumped off on his own to Margate, where he stayed under an assumed name and struck up a relationship with the widowed landlady, Mrs Booth.
It was a rarity, as Turner gave the impression he'd rather be alone with his thoughts, sketch book in hand, than chatting about (say) gooseberries with John Rushkin (as happens in one scene).
It feels right and true, but there weren't enough boats. Ok, that is a pretty limited criticism but the problem is the difficulty (read cost) of outside scenes of the Thames in 1850 in Chelsea when it currently looks like this:
Turner is known for his large skies and wild seas, but all too often they were hidden from view, apart from one lovely shot of white cliffs and rolling seas.
The one exception was the recreation of the famous scene of the Fighting Temeraire using extensive CGI like this:
This is the view as it was captured by Turner in his masterpiece - but which is known to be inaccurate (e.g. the masts would have been taken down).
But it makes a lovely scene in the film with Turner in a real rowing gig out on the water as the sun sets. I wish there could have been more of them.
I also felt there should have been some mention of the problems Turner had with his vision.
But the aggregate effect of numerous character focussed scenes, no doubt well researched by the team including actors, builds to picture of a complex man who focussed on art rather than people, who knew the difference between solitude and loneliness, for he was never alone while he had his sketch books to hand.
Both the deaths of his father and Turner himself are ultimately moving, and the last words of the latter, "the sun is god", haunting.
For anyone interested in Turner, plus many others beside, I'd say its a must-see film.