In Mr Turner Timothy Spall shows he’s a major contender for best English actor of his generation, but there can be no doubt at all that he’s wrapped up the prize for grunting. He can convey a range of subtle and complex emotions from sounds that seem to emanate from somewhere deep in his throat and nasal passages. This, combined with a face that’s so asymmetrical it’s capable of expressing contradictory feelings simultaneously, as the extraordinary scene in the brothel demonstrates, helps him produce a masterclass in acting.
But then Mike Leigh seems to make even ordinary faces extraordinary as he assembles a cast of regulars such as Ruth Sheen (as the mother of Turner’s children), Lesley Manville (as Mary Somerville) Marion Bailey (as Mrs Booth, Turner’s lover, as well as Dorothy Atkinson. Among the black suited and hatted men of the Royal Academy Joshua McGuire stands out, who, as John Ruskin, moves his upper body round in waves as if to gather in all the available oxygen to inflate his pompous ideas. The actors obviously had a lot of fun with their roles, as do the audience.
I don’t know if Turner was a good man. He didn’t treat his female servant or his wife and daughters well. But Spall plays him sympathetically, portraying his fierce independence and deep commitment to his own controversial and ground-breaking style of work, and demonstrating the extraordinary lengths he went to create it. He was a working class bloke who could storm about the Royal Academy dismissing the toffs with a grunt and a sweep of his arm. He wasn’t the typical self-important artist, referring to one of his masterpieces casually as a ‘marine scene’. Perhaps that’s why he fell with a woman who describes his drawings as ‘nice little pictures’. He also had a close and touching relationship with his father, played by Paul Jesson.
The visuals are quite breathtaking. Paintings of landscapes and sea scenes seem to merge into reality and you wonder how cinematographer Dick Pope could recreate such burning intensity of colour in the skies of the south coast, or the moors of the highlands. There are some unforgettable scenes, like Turner being tied to the mast of a ship to witness a snowstorm at close quarters, or his heartfelt and tuneless rendering of Dido’s Lament. But among the most memorable must be the scene where he mounts the back of his long suffering servant, growling like some desperately wounded beast. You almost felt yourself suffocated by the weight and dimensions of his body.
It’s a long film and Timothy Spall is on screen for most it. It’s a performance that Arthouse audiences definitely won’t want to miss.