Mr Turner

by / Filed under Thinking

Went to see Mr Turner earlier this week, Mike Leigh’s biopic of (arguably, obviously) Britain’s greatest artist.

I’ve always loved Turner. Partly because of how he evokes the sublime (I’m a romantic at heart):

Impressionist mountains with a huge dark cloud over them

Hannibal crossing the Alps in a storm

Partly because of the colour:

Impressionist painting with lots of golden colours swirling to a centre point

Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis

And partly because I’m a sucker for anything ahead of its time. Turner was the earliest impressionist, even abstract in his later years:

An impressionist steam train crossing an aqueduct

Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway

I enjoyed the film a lot. As you’ve probably heard, Timothy Spall is fantastic: half grunting oaf, pawing at the (seemingly plentiful) women in his life, half leading light of the Royal Academy scene, fascinated by the science of his art. Like all the great romantics, Spall’s Turner incorporates a bit of everything, plebian and aristocrat.

My only gripe would be I’m not sure what the film is actually for. Sometimes it felt like very high quality period character drama, which is fine if a little unchallenging. Turner is definitely lionised, and at points Leigh tries to portray him as a highly principled, proto–working class hero; in one scene he refuses to sell his work for £100,000 and makes a speech about leaving it all to the nation.

There’s also very little about the actual paintings. Plenty on their physical creation – Spall spits on the canvas, while his dad takes great pains to mix a beautiful, noxious carmine – but the film is very much about the man rather than his works. Perhaps there’s an unromantic point in there somewhere about the physicality of painting, or maybe the idea is to simply bring the man to life. I guess we can always go and view the pictures.

Having said that, there are some beautiful shots, not least the Dutch landscape at the start of the film, complete with a rotund silhouette of the great man himself, or a recreation of The Fighting Temeraire, where Turner celebrates the tug rather than the old warship.

A small black tug boat pulling a grand, damaged warship with a bright sun in the background

The Fighting Temeraire