Review by Jane Freebury

Of all the times in an artist’s life to choose from, director Mike Leigh has chosen to portray the great English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner after he turned 50. Albeit Turner was at the top of his game, but he had already made it, was an exalted artist, held an academic post and was also a wealthy man. Could it be that Leigh divined that the last third of the painter’s life would unearth more pronounced eccentricities of character? Given Leigh’s appetite for people of character, I think so.

Thinking back over recent film portraits of the artist like Frida, Pollock and the story of Vermeer’s The Girl With a Pearl Earring, the essence of the story has been the development of a vision. How artists drew on life experiences, and had wellspring moments that saw them master their technique. Leigh has chosen to consider Turner in rather different territory.

A son of the working classes, Turner made few if any concessions to the social circles he entered as an artist of the Royal Academy. Not given much to verbal expression anyway, he continued by all accounts with his curmudgeonly ways.

Timothy Spall’s interpretation of one of Britain’s greatest-ever artists precedes the film with his Best Actor prize from Cannes. His Turner grunts and grimaces, even scrapes and spits at his work on occasion, and seems much less the artist famed for ethereal seascapes and the way he captured light, than a rough tradesman. Similar, perhaps, to the barber his father who practised his technique on pig’s heads. And yet there are moments when another man shines through, like the delicate, brief interlude at Petworth with a woman playing the piano. There is the sublime and then there’s the rough and crude: the two sides to the man.

This is a vibrant, robust and richly observed portrayal of character, sometimes even a startling and dismaying one too. A cock-a-snoot to the critics and the arts establishment then, and one suspects, now.

Leigh first made a name for himself with beautifully observed character studies of ordinary people. Detailed miniatures, studies in the round like his recent Another Year and Happy-Go-Lucky that are of a piece with the earlier work like Secrets & Lies and Life is Sweet that made him famous.

When news was out in 1999 that the remarkable Mike Leigh was tackling Gilbert and Sullivan, the fabulous exponents of 19th century British comic opera, I had my doubts but Topsy-Turvy turned out to be a triumph. It was rich with period detail, dominated by robust, larger-than-life characters including Jim Broadbent as the librettist Gilbert, and bursting with wickedly subversive humour. Leigh had burst out of his kitchen sink naturalism with gusto. He’s done it again with Mr Turner.

In a capsule: Richly observed biopic of the great 19th century landscape artist, curmudgeonly hero of the British cultural establishment, with an unforgettable performance by Timothy Spall.

4 stars