Timothy Spall has been given wide acclaim for his portrayal of the 19th century British master in the eponymous Mr. Turner. Currently, the film itself scores 95 percent on Metacritic, and bafflingly 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. I think this may be a film that is reviewed by reputation rather than its own merits.
Revoltingly grunty, the piggish Mr Turner goes about the final 25 years of his life painting maritime masterpieces, enjoying critical praise, and commercial stagnation. He is however successful enough to have a handsome house and employ a housekeeper who obligingly lets him screw her to syphilitic ruin. Her ruin not his. I have no case to make against history, and can only accept that many elements in this film are faithful adaptations from it.
There are many moments of philosophic triumph, for instance the scene whereby Turner exposes an aristocratic little shit of snobbery and hiding beneath a façade of fancy phrases nothing more than an ignorant twat. He does this by asking the git a simple question (which type of meat pie he prefers) and the little cad dodges the question. He therefore cannot judge his preference among painters since he cannot make the simplest of choices. That was a good scene, and a good lesson. Thank goodness there are a few other scenes like it, but they don’t harmonise to form a cohesive film.
I personally felt like the movie was two hours of beginnings. It never really got under way and there was no dramatic centre. It was not as if Turner was working on a particular masterpiece that could act as the cinematic confluence of his influential body of work. The famous piece called The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, was shown as it was conceived and painted, but served no purpose to the story besides being just another element. A waste.
At times the dialogue felt like it was being delivered in a school play, full of hammy affectation as when an amatuer performs Shakespeare. Spall was the most revolting he’s ever been, but played the part of painter authentically. On the whole I am tempted to think that his J. M. W. Turner was merely an extension of his terribly flat attempt at Winston Churchill in The King’s Speech, but that would be overreaching. His performance is far more nuanced, and he is hardly the weak part of this film.
Overall, it is simply grim, and somewhat confused. There are plenty of themes at work which could have been further developed but never were. The scene in the gallery with fellow master John Constable was well played and a true highlight. Perhaps we could have seen more of their rivalry — then the piece would have had some direction.
So an interesting film, and certainly worth seeing at some point (particularly if you have an interest in art). The parts are lovely, but as a whole it is a damn squib.