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Turner, the masterpiece

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Mr Turner (12a)
Running time 150 minutes
Making a biopic of the complex, tumultuous and deeply unsympathetic life of Joseph Mallord William Turner, one of England’s greatest painters, would pose problems for even the greatest film director. Given that that artist was short, ugly, ill-mannered, cantankerous and liable to splutter phlegm all over you at a moment’s notice, you would think that most film-makers, thinking of the sanitised version of artistic chaos as depicted in the life of Van Gogh (Lust for Life), might be tempted to steer well clear. But not Mike Leigh, veteran British director whose highly individual take on films such as Vera Drake and Secrets& Lies has equipped him to deal with the most challenging of topics and Mr Turner is the result. And Turner, with his complex love life (two mistresses – at least – and a sexually-exploited housekeeper) is certainly a challenge. But both Leigh and Timothy Spall, who plays Turner with seeming total commitment to honesty, have carried off a masterpiece of storytelling. It may not be what most cinemagoers would regard as a biopic – breaking down Turner’s last 25 years into a series of telling vignettes that reveal both his genius and his many flaws – but it does keep you enthralled at the vision of a film director doing exactly what Turner did – paint with light. Despite his many critics (Queen Victoria detested his work), and opponents (Constable and Turner had an uneasy relationship), Turner emerges in the hands of Spall as a man born to paint in a fashion that was 50 years too soon. His “impressions” of landscape, storms and light pre-date the French Impressionists by a generation and reveal a painter deeply in tune with what he observed around him. The film shows his method of working (using fingers, hands, brushes, knives, spit, anything that came to hand) and his way of dealing with people (kind and courteous to friends such as the even- more troubled painter Benjamin Haydon, played by Martin Savage), but gruffly rude to people he regarded as idiots. One of the great treats is to see Turner set against the places where some of his greatest works were created – watching the old wooden warship Temeraire towed to the breakers’ yard and the rush of an early train with its smoke and belching, billowed steam. Leigh’s work at creating this portrait of Turner is helped by a plethora of great British actors, such as Marion Bailey as Sophia Booth, the Margate landlady who became his mistress; Dorothy Atkinson as Hannah Danby, Turner’s London housekeeper who loved him and was treated with absent-minded cruelty by the artist, and Paul Jesson, who played Turner’s much-loved father William. This, plus the exquisite lighting of the scenes and the meticulous attention to detail in the sets, has created a film that should win awards, but may not because of its honest approach. Significantly, the audience for the film – only on for a week at Vue, but on at the Corn Exchange shortly for two more weeks – was defiantly mature, which is a shame, not least because it would be a gift to any A-level art student interested to see how a great painter went about his craft.

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