I began today the youngest person at a Turner exhibition (save for a baby that looked like it would rather be elsewhere) and ended it the youngest person at a Turner film. A self-confessed art ignoramus, I thought I’d better do some background research – no pun intended.
In this biopic, Timothy Spall plays the great British painter in his later years. This means from the film’s beginning Turner is a highly revered artist. A protégée, Turner had his work displayed in national art galleries from the age of fifteen so there is little in his life that would lend itself to a tortured struggle for recognition. The bulk of the film alternates between Turner striding across landscapes and sitting in studios and galleries having praise heaped on him by his many admirers.
Turner is very well drawn – pun intended – but the aim of this film seems little more that to sketch the man behind the paintings, rather than examine or critique his struggles and motivations. Aspects of his life that could have been interesting to explore, such as his relationship with his estranged former lover and daughters, or with the hapless painter Haydon (Martin Savage), are fleetingly referenced, in favour of more scenes of people expressing their adoration for the often cantankerous and unpleasant old man. His relationship with Haydon could have been further developed into a Salieri-esque tale of the jealousy of an unrecognised talent living in the shadow of a great man, but he is of relevance only insofar as he owes Turner 50 quid for most of the film. It therefore lacks narrative structure, or demonstrates “economy of form” (the technical term for paintings that don’t really look like what they’re supposed to, often ascribed to Turner’s later work). The trouble is, this is fine in a seascape painting, but a biopic should be treated more like a portrait, where form, or narrative, is very important.
With its focus on painting a picture of an artist it also, perversely, neglects his work. The admittedly beautiful cinematography shows little of the menace and power Turner saw in nature, opting for scenic views, which are, save from a single scene (which is necessary to show the inspiration for one of his most famous paintings), bathed in a warm sunlit glow. It would have been nice to see the inspiration behind his biblical and historical epics, something of his many forays overseas to Rome or Switzerland, or the impact the death of his father had on his work. Instead we have yet more scenes in parlours of people saying what a visionary he is. When a Turner fan, Jon Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), attempts to discuss what the pictures represent, Turner dismisses the conversation in a flippant way that it’s hard to imagine a great artist behaving in real life.
There are some very good performances, not least from Spall, even if they lack naturalism in a way that is all-too-common in period dramas. He grunts and growls like an orc, and never adds anything remotely appealing to the oily oil painter, but it works, and he’s enjoyable to watch. He reportedly spent two years learning to paint before the film so he could accurately reproduce Turner pieces. While it’s undoubtedly a good thing to have an actor who looks at ease behind an easel, the limited amount of time he actually spends painting suggests this might be another case of an actor going for their Boy Scout badge in method acting, rather than doing the necessary preparation for playing a character. The other star of the piece is Marion Bailey as Turner’s landlady and mistress, who is the most likeable thing in the film.
While there is skill in directing, acting and cinematography, there is a sense that this film could have been more. It commits the twin biopic sins of simply showing events with little insight or narrative arc, and failing to offer anything to people not already familiar with the subject and their work. While it is certainly watchable, and far superior to the other art-based film I’ve reviewed, Girl With a Pearl Earring, looking at these films in tandem there’s a sense that with the medium of painting, the finished product may be more interesting that the process.