“There’s no room for cynicism in the reviewing of art”
One might equally say there’s no room for cynicism in my reviewing of Mike Leigh’s work, such a fan of his oeuvre am I and the laidback, gruff charms of Mr Turner are no exception, confirming the iconic director in the full flush of his prime. Timothy Spall has already been deservedly rewarded for his wonderfully harrumphing performance of the last 10 years of the life of this most famous of painters and it is a compelling portrait, of a man established in his world as a bachelor, a master painter, and later a lover. Leigh’s episodic style fits perfectly into this biographical mode, dipping in and out of his life with the precision of one of Turner’s paintbrushes, colouring in a captivating collage of his later life.
Spall is excellent but around him, the women in his life provide some of the most hauntingly beautiful moments of the film. As Sarah Danby, the mistress and mother of the two daughters he would not recognise, Ruth Sheen is piercingly vivid, her barely contained fury resonating deeply. As Hannah Danby, her niece who was Turner’s long-suffering and long-serving housekeeper, Dorothy Atkinson is painfully brilliant as a woman subjugated and subdued by his wanton sexual advances, the psoriasis that afflicted her, and her deep love for the man. As “self-taught Scotswoman” and scientist Mary Somerville, Lesley Manville near steals the film in a simply beautiful self-contained vignette.
And as the woman with whom he did find happiness, Marion Bailey’s Margate landlady Sophia Booth is a gorgeous presence, full of innate warmth gentle kindness, it is the kind of performance to fill the heart with its loveliness. By the end of the film, she’s once, twice, three times a widow but one just knows she has the stoicism to bear it and she, along with us, will always have the memory of Turner’s inimitable declaration of love which is surely one of the tenderest moments committed to film all year long.
In truth, this film is just actor porn from top to bottom, familiar faces popping up in pretty much every scene and delivering some amazing work. The seconds-long, wordless cameo from Ruby Bentall and Lee Ingleby as an angry couple is just genius, the glorious Sinéad Matthews makes a formidable Queen Victoria, Nicola Sloane as a bawdy madam, Kate O’Flynn’s game working girl, James Fleet’s repressed Constable, James Norton’s enthusiastic clarinettist, Leo Bill’s cheery photographer, David Horovitch’s kindly doctor, Peter Wight’s grasping arts patron, the list literally goes on and on and on.
I need to go back to see if I can spot Fenella Woolgar who managed to pass me by, as did Janet Henfrey, and to more fully appreciate Sam Kelly’s performance as I realised very late who he was. And it feels like the kind of film that would reward rewatching, the dialogue so full of deceptively light humour, in the barbs of the critics (Elizabeth Berrington and Vincent Franklin amongst others) or the exhaustive discussion of the gooseberry at the Ruskins’ salon (Sylvestra Le Touzel and Stuart McQuarrie simpering perfectly as the parents of Joshua McGuire’s supercilious critic).
The film looks beautiful too, capturing a special something of the unique vision of how Turner saw light, and its infinite potential on the canvas – landscapes, seascapes, the human form, all gets caressed by an epic sweep that is frequently stunning. But Leigh never lets us lose sight of the human side to the artistic genius – the achingly complex relationship with Paul Jesson’s beautifully played father, the casual cruelty with which he conducted so many of his relationships, leading to the emotional gut-punch of the final scene. Mercurial, measured brilliance.