Film Review – Mr Turner

Main cast

Timothy Spall as Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)

Dorothy Atkinson as Hannah Danby

Paul Jesson as William Turner

Marion Bailey as Sophia Booth

Ruth Sheen as Sarah Danby

Sandy Foster as Evalina Dupois –

Martin Savage as Benjamin Haydon


Robert Henderson

This is a curate’s egg of a film about the man generally considered to be England’s greatest painter.  At its centre lies a commanding performance by Timothy Spall as Turner  in the last quarter century of his life. The film is worth watching for that reason alone,  for   Spall is one of those rare  actors who cannot deliver a poor performance;  he does not  have it  in him. Here he has a marvellously varied collection of snorts and grunts to express his feelings to add to his ever present virtue as an actor of seeming to be  someone fully engaged with the rest of humanity.  (Even Spall’s s portrayal Britain’s longest serving  hangman Albert Pierrepoint  managed to make him  curiously sympathetic. ).

There are also first rate  supporting performances  by   Dorothy Atkinson as  Turner’s housekeeper Hannah Danby, who is in love with and sexually exploited  by Turner,   and Marion Bailey as  a boarding house keeper Turner meets on his regular trips to Margate  and eventually takes to London where he surreptitiously sets up home with her.

With the exception of Paul Jesson as Turner’s father (an unremarkable  performance) and Martin Savage as a fellow artist Benjamin Haydon who  was incessantly whining about how his career was being sabotaged by the professional jealousy of other artists whilst he attempted  to borrow money (something which added nothing of importance to the story of Turner’s life) , the rest of the cast have so  little screen time that they do not have  a chance to develop their parts beyond the perfunctory .

But…but…. There are serious weaknesses.  First, it tries to cover far  too much  ground with seemingly every incident  publicly known about Turner in his later life requiring a nod of acknowledgement by the film.  It  smacks of the completest mania of the collector. The result is that  characters (over 80  actors are credited in the official cast list) come and go without any proper  explanation of who they are and what their  significance is for Turner. For example, his two illegitimate daughters and their mother appear briefly at the beginning and near the end without proper explanation of exactly who they are or why Turner is so very  cold towards them.

The second weakness is the implied  assumption by the film that its audience would have a good grasp of British  artistic history during the period.  The portrayal of artistic relations between Royal Academicians and Turner  will  be bewildering for most people who see the film and simply clutter up the narrative.

Take  Turner’s relationship with  John Constable. Constable did not publicly slate Turner but he was jealous of him and like many others privately dismissed his work as just insubstantial fireworks playing with the depiction of  light.  In 1832 at the Royal Academy’s annual show Constable and Turner had paintings hung side by side.  Constable’s painting was The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, a large colourful canvas which had been a Herculean  fifteen years in the composition. Turner’s painting entitled  Helvoetsluys was a rather subdued  affair of Dutch ships.

Constable was putting the finishing touches to his painting using vermillion to paint the flags on barges in in his painting.  Turner came into the room and placed a daub of scarlet paint in the grey sea of his painting. He then left to return the next day (when the paint was still wet) and  shaped the scarlet daub on his painting into a buoy.  Constable took this as taking a rise out of his rather colourful and long time in the making The Opening of Waterloo Bridge and loudly  complained  that Turner  ‘ has been here and fired a gun.’ In the film this episode takes  place rapidly with no explanation of why Constable should have been so annoyed.

To the  poorly developed professional  relationships  can be added the references to Turner’s work both individually and generally.  For those with some familiarity with his work, or at least his  most famous paintings, a  scene, beautifully realised,  with Turner in a boat watching a steam tug towing a warship which had seen duty at Trafalgar would have immediately  evoked Turner’s painting The Fighting Temeraire . But to someone who had little or no  knowledge of Turner  the scene would have seemed random and of little importance.   The same incomprehension would have been felt by those ignorant of  Turner  when he watches a train rush by  on the new-fangled railways and  the idea of  his Rain, Steam and Speed  is born.

Then there was for me the  most exquisitely enjoyable moment  in the film. This was the look of profound contempt which crossed Spall’s face (accompanied by a particularly meaningful snort) when he sees  some pre-Raphaelite paintings. But to appreciate  the moment  the viewer had to understand that the contempt was  result of  Turner and the pre-Raphaelites being artistic  polar opposites : Turner was concerned with overall effect and the play of light in particular: the pre-Raphaelite’s were fixated with representing the world  in almost photographic  detail.  Spall’s magnificent contempt is born of the man who sees further and farther than others and sardonically views the work of lesser beings who are trapped in their immediate surroundings.

Irritating as all that unnecessary event counting was,  there were plenty of moments of humour which anyone could understand , many simply deriving from the interplay with Spall’s personality  with others, but with a few set pieces  in which other characters provided the humour such as a wickedly savage depiction of a  young John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire ) performing with sublimely unselfconscious pretension . Even if someone did not have a clue about who Ruskin was they could still find the portrayal very amusing.

A running theme throughout the film is an  England on the brink of modernity. At the start of the film Turner makes his regular trips from London to Margate on the Kent coast by ship because that is the fastest means of  making a trip of perhaps sixty miles.  By the end of the film he is catching a train.

A lady scientist visits him and shows him how a metal pin can be magnetised by fragmenting  light  by passing it through a prism to produce a  the colours of the rainbow some of which magnetise negatively and some positively.

Late in the film we see Turner having his photograph taken for using an early an early photographic system called a Daguerreotype.   Turner quizzes the photographer about how things are done in this new means of representing things whilst inwardly fretting that photography will be the nemesis of the artist.  He sighs with relief when the photographer tells him that colour photographs are nowhere on the horizon.

This film could have been much tauter than it is if the director had made it less cluttered with characters and  specific events .  But when all is said and done Spall’s performance rescues it from a disjointed banality.   Go and  see it to watch a master actor in action in a role which fits him like a glove.

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1 Response to Film Review – Mr Turner

  1. adams says:

    Curates egg yes indeed and too long with it . Brilliantly acted from everyone and too much emphasis on the women in Turners life (which you have to expect from Mike Leigh I suppose).
    What was the point of the sponging Hayden ? No relevance and one of the reasons why the film was too long . I did not need to see Turner dying , was it purely so they could get the last words he spoke . ‘The Sun is God ‘ . The portrayal of John Ruskin as a silly fop was offensive but portrayed like that to raise a few laughs I suppose ( As the film did not have many ).. Ruskin was a huge admirer of Ruskin and bought many of his paintings . The newspaper critics were far too kind to this film .

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