Mr Turner

Director: Mike Leigh (2014)

Brilliant Timothy Spall was surprisingly overlooked by Oscar for his grunting, growling portrayal of superstar artist J.M.W.Turner.

This masterful biopic is a rich canvas covering the last 25 years of the genius’s life until his death aged 76.

Hangdog and whiskered, the man often hailed as Britain’s greatest ever painter is hard on his contemporaries, kind to his patrons and horrible to his servants and children.

With Spall dominant in the foreground, there is a wealth of emotional colour swirling around in the background to ponder.

Never married, Turner has complex relations with the many women in his life. He refuses to acknowledge the children he has with his former lover Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) despite her constant appeals.

Meanwhile the artist regularly takes sexual advantage of his devoted housekeeper – and Sarah’s niece – Hannah Danby, played by Dorothy Atkinson.

After the death of his beloved father William (Paul Jesson) Londoner Turner goes to the Kent coast to stay in the Margate lodging house of Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey), a warm, gentle and touching bond develops, accelerating on the death of her husband.

Supremely confident in his creative talent, Turner takes pains to guard his place at the top of the intensely competitive art world.

With his sketchbook for company, he strides across landscapes, walks for miles along the coast and pays prostitutes to show him their bodies for anatomy lessons, we’re left to ponder at what else he may be paying for.

He even has himself tied to a ship’s mast in a storm to study the light. As his work becomes ever more revolutionary he is mocked by satirists, which hastens his decline.

Rich and famous, Turner is still hurt when a young Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert – philistines both – are too shallow to appreciate his art.

The gentle ending, the most heartbreaking of 2014, is all the more powerful for lacking sentimentality.

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