Timothy Spall in 'Mr Turner'
Timothy Spall in 'Mr Turner'

Awkward, gruff, bearish, obdurate, with sudden twinkles of redeeming charm. The portrait of the artist in Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner is uncannily like a portrait of Mike Leigh. If so, who will complain? Auto-referential or not – and what’s wrong with authorly identification (“Emma Bovary, c’est moi” said Flaubert)? – this JMW Turner lives, breathes and vividly, variedly grunts (a researched quirk here made droll and expressive) in Timothy Spall’s bewitching performance, boorish yet beatific.

We’ll even forgive – let’s clear this up first – the freedoms Leigh has taken with John Ruskin. The impotent spouse and genius of yester-week’s Effie Gray becomes a prattling young twerp (Joshua McGuire) enraptured with his brilliance: “I find myself marvelling at my own depth of perception.” If it’s a liberty, it’s at least an adventurist one. Turner might well – who knows? – have seen Ruskin and his kind as comic relief in his career, even if Ruskin was its champion. Who wants a grateful genius? A scorn for establishments of every kind, including the critical fraternity (even spasm’d by supportiveness), is probably organic to the rebel energy of Romanticism.

This Turner is an unmade bed of a human being: rumpled, unwashed, inchoate, yet full of the reeky, enduring warmth of passion and the restless ley lines of yesterday’s dreamings. We get towed into the paintings as Turner creates them. “Staffa”, “The Fighting Temeraire”, “Rain, Steam and Speed”. Then we’re towed out again into a life that, thanks to Dick Pope’s magisterial cinematography, glows with the vitality and raspy golden-yellow radiance of the Turner vision-world.

Another rule of Romanticism: when art is a vocation and governing passion, life gets ad-libbed as best it can. Turner sired children he didn’t want from wives abandoned in his wake. Leigh’s film suggests he also had sex with his housekeeper of 40 years Hannah Danby (superb study in tortured fidelity from Dorothy Atkinson). Later the painter hitched his wandering sun to Margate landlady Sophia Booth, played with an appealing shopworn incandescence by Leigh’s partner Marion Bailey.

It’s a beautiful film because it isn’t afraid of beauty’s uglinesses. Artists don’t personify the ideal or dazzling worlds they envision. They are the workshop, not the work. So it’s right, in a biopic, that we see the mess of the creative life. The paint-smeared hands and clothes; the unkempt love affairs; even the magicianly misbehaviour of the moment when Turner, outwitting John Constable at a Royal Academy “varnishing show”, plants an ugly-seeming gob of red paint on one of his own seascapes – horror, vandalism (we think)! – and then transforms it, with the sweetest and simplest brush flick, into a sea buoy so real you could touch it.

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