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We didn’t know what to expect of this movie, we were not known with the backstory but this was a warm welcome. Sad and joyful, ‘Mr Turner’ offers a wonderfully rich tapestry of experience and digs deeply into a complicated, contradictory life.
Timothy Spall plays this eccentric, determined London bohemian like a bronchial, randy old toad with backache. He grunts and grimaces and gropes his way through life. He talks like a market trader after a crash course in the classics. Leigh, the director, meanwhile, explores Turner’s life unburdened by any sense of purpose other than an intense, contagious fascination with this man, his work, his times and, increasingly, the inevitable, slow, irresistible trudge towards death.
We observe Turner’s fondness for his elderly father; his relationship with his meek housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson); his rejection of his children and their mother; his arms-length acceptance by the lions of the Royal Academy; his late-life relationship with a Margate widow (Marion Bailey); and the mockery of the crowd when his work turns experimental. ‘Vile’ and a ‘yellow mess’ concludes Queen Victoria at an exhibition: the presence of royalty in a Mike Leigh film is just one of its many welcome surprises here. Mortality hangs heavily over ‘Mr Turner’, which covers roughly 25 years and is a poetic, brilliantly choreographed patchwork of moments and episodes. The camera work alone is jewel. The film often has a wistful, regretful air, but alongside sadness sits great joy – there are moments of wicked humour.

Not only do we end up with a vivid, surprising and soulful sense of one artist and his work, but Leigh also offers us a commanding view of a city, London, and country at the dawn of the modern age and of a man being overawed and overtaken by new technologies such as photography and the railways. As ever with Leigh, ‘Mr Turner’ addresses the big questions with small moments. It’s an extraordinary film, all at once strange, entertaining, thoughtful and exciting.

5 out of 5