Watching someone create a work of art is a lot more interesting visually than, say, watching writers write. Consequently, it’s no surprise there have been so many films about visual artists, from straightforwardly conventional ones like Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 biopic of Van Gogh (Lust for Life) to those that try to find a correlative between the film style and the art itself, such as John Maybury’s phantasmagorical Love Is the Devil. Like other kinds of biopics, some cover the whole sweep of an artist’s life and career (2002’s Frida, for example), while others favour a slice-of-life approach (Girl with a Pearl Earring).
Mike Leigh’s beautifully limned portrait of the 19th-century British artist William Turner is something in between those two extremes, focusing largely on the later years of the painter’s life, when he was already a feted name with eccentric habits and a complicated private life.
Leigh makes it clear that there’s no correlation between genius and moral character, which come to think of it is a theme in many artists’ biopics, but one lightly handled here. It’s apparent that although Turner loved his father William (Paul Jesson) and his cats, he was not a warm man, let alone a nice one. We see him coldly turn his back on an ex-lover (Ruth Sheen) and their children when she comes looking for financial support, sexually exploit his doggedly loyal housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), and frequent prostitutes as much for sexual satisfaction as a chance to sketch nudes. Later, he shows more capacity for tenderness when he takes up with Margate landlady Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey), but even then he keeps his private and his professional life intensely compartmentalised.
Clearly, Turner’s greatest passion is for his art, which he’s seen pursuing with dogged intent, even going so far as to tie himself to the mast of a ship during a storm in order to understand the conditions he would depict in a painting. He finds a sense of kinship discussing work with other artists, and the film makes savvy use of a comical, lisping John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) to spell out ideas that the often inarticulate Turner can’t express.
Although certain scenes resonate with each other thematically, and characters recur, the overall impression is one of living snapshots capturing particular moments, some of them significant (like Turner causing a clamour of excitement when he fixes one of his paintings during an exhibition), some of them seemingly inconsequential. Deliberately fragmentary and sketchy, it’s not the sort of tidy biopic that Hollywood churns out in batches, but this somehow makes it even truer to the spirit of the Romantic period, an era where poets, painters and other artists were fascinated by fragments, lyrical moments and sketches.
Awarded the best actor trophy in Cannes in 2014 for his performance, Timothy Spall delivers arguably his most majestic performance in a rich career, capturing both Turner’s quicksilver intelligence and energy but also his coarse manners – a lot of his dialogue consists of expressive grunts and growls, like a pig suffering a bad bout of dyspepsia.
Although Leigh’s deft handling of actors and humour is palpable throughout, there’s none of the satirical sneering that sometimes mars his work. Some might even consider it his best film to date, and in some ways, despite its grounding in biography and history, his most personal.