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Movie review: Mr Turner

Updated on November 2, 2014

There was a time when if you asked someone who their favourite artist was, it would have been one of two names: Tony Hart or Rolf Harris. With Harris struck off that list (and put on quite a different one altogether), the appreciation of art for many is on the narrow side.

Mike Leigh's latest is a fascinating portrayal of renowned English Romantic landscape painter J.M.W Turner, who even as a child, could have wiped those smug faces of off all those brats sending in their shitty pictures into Tony Hart's gallery.

Supreme artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (Timothy Spall) returns to his London home after a trip to Amsterdam. He is estranged from his wife and daughters so lives with his housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson); she thinks a lot of her employer, and her services go beyond more than just waiting on him hand and foot, which he is more than happy to take advantage of.

Although a member of the Royal Academy of Arts, Turner is not one to conform, far from it. In fact you can bet that if feathers are ruffled, it's bound to be Turner doing the ruffling.

On one of his many trips, Turner, using a pseudonym, stays at a boarding house in the seaside town of Margate. He is struck by the kindness of its owner Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey), who he takes an instant liking to. It is a relationship that will eventually blossom into something more, although it doesn't stop the painter from being any less prickly.

This is not your average biopic; for instance, it doesn't actually begin until Turner is already middle aged. It focuses on the last twenty five years of his life, when he already has a reputation for being one of the best landscape painters of his generation.

In a sense it's a shame not to have an insight into his childhood and upbringing – particularly his formative relationships with women – but ultimately this would have meant less screen time for Spall, which would have been a tragedy in itself.

It's no surprise that he recently picked up Best Actor at Cannes; it is a truly beguiling performance, supremely nuanced and balanced throughout, offering far more than just an actor chewing scenery in a period drama to get noticed. Director Mike Leigh could have let Spall really go to town, but the restraint shown reveals a more complex character.

It's also one of those films that takes you by surprise; despite being ten minutes shy of three hours in length, both Spall's portrayal and Leigh's direction mean that you never feel like watching the clock, as it weaves its picturesque tale.

Leigh's film paints an impressive and absorbing picture of one of this country's greatest artists, but it's Spall's career-defining turn that will captivate audiences with its many strokes of brilliance.

4 booms

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