It's no surprise that Mike Leigh would take a distinctly original approach to the celebrity biopic, and this film about 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner is refreshingly unstructured and abrasive. By avoiding the usual formula, Leigh also reinvents the period drama as something almost startlingly realistic, packing the screen with sardonic humour and honest emotions that are extremely complex. And since it's about a painter, the film looks absolutely gorgeous, as Leigh and his ace cinematographer Dick Pope recreate the look of Turner's paintings on-screen.
The film is set in the 1820s, when Turner (Timothy Spall) is a celebrity on the art scene, courting controversy with his visceral landscapes. People either love or hate his work, but his financial success means he can do whatever he wants. Living with his father (Paul Jesson) and loyal housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), Turner openly challenges his critics. But his private life is just as tempestuous. He ignores the two daughters he fathered with Mrs Danby (Ruth Sheen) and has a second incognito life with the widow Sophie Booth (Marion Bailey), calling himself "Mr Mallard". Meanwhile, he continues to push boundaries in his work, challenging the status quo to such an extent that he becomes a joke in social circles.
Spall won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his astonishing performance as the fiercely independent Turner, a man who went to extreme ends to maintain his anarchic lifestyle and produce his distinctive paintings. In one key scene, he straps himself to a ship's mast during a storm so he can better capture the extreme weather in his work. Yes, Turner was a hurricane of a man, brushing off anyone who disparaged his art, including Queen Victoria. And it's no surprise that so few people liked him: Spall plays him believably as monosyllabic grump who growls more than he speaks.
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