Mr Turner (2014)

Starring: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Karl Johnson, Lesley Manville

Directed by: Mike Leigh

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Timothy Spall as Mr Turner

Who doesn't recognise a Turner painting? Well, to be fair, probably lots of people. But even if, like me, your knowledge of art is (if you'll excuse the pun) somewhat sketchy, you can probably pick one of his glorious, hazy land or seascapes out of an art line up. But hands up who knows anything about the artist? Um...

I suppose, if pressed, I'd have described an effete, floppy haired pre-PreRaphaelite - wasn't he in Desperate Romantics? But wait – isn't he played by Timothy Spall...?

And how! Like a curmudgeonly bulldog chewing a wasp, Spall attacks the role with the same vigour and brilliance that the artist attacks his canvas – and just as we see Turner fling spit, paint and passion into his work, so Spall throws every fibre of his considerable being into this performance. Mr Turner is no Byronic romantic hero here but a talented working class boy done good, supported by a devoted father and housekeeper and hounded by a shrill ex-wife, trailed by soggy daughters he disowns.

Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh's Mr Turner

And this is no simpering bonneted biopic either. As you'd hope and expect from director Mike Leigh, this is Turner in the raw: if a BBC4 film crew had traveled back in time to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the artist's final years, this is what they would have ended up with, a film that's intensely, wonderfully three-dimensional and real, delighting in the minutiae of early Victorian life in a way that, while it occasionally stretches the patience, is never anything less than genuine. Think Naked with sherry and top hats, an artistic odyssey through 19th century London.

Best of all, the film not only lets you into Turner's world, it lets you see through his eyes, daubing the screen with crimson sunsets, smoking steam engines and sail-sprinkled salty seascapes. It may lack the high drama of Amadeus, the lurid romanticism of Gothic or the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll of Walk the Line, but like all the best films about artists, it makes you understand just why its subject was so damned great. Absorbing, delightful, moving and unexpectedly funny, Mr Turner paints a masterpiece indeed.

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