Starring:Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Ruth Sheen, Martin Savage,Paul Jesson.
Directed: Mike Leigh.
You don’t have to be an art afficionado to enjoy this absorbing film, the fifth collaborative venture between Timothy Spall and Mike Leigh, which traces the last quarter century of the life of the 19th century English Romantic artist Joseph Mallord William Turner.
Watching the Graham Norton show the other day, I learnt that Spall took lessons for two years to learn how to paint like Turner. Leigh has also done his homework well and there’s never a dull moment as Leigh delves into both the man and his work which is displayed in glorious detail over a period of two and a half hours .I have seen an artist use his body to paint at the Artists Centre in Mumbai. I know of other Indian masters who, emulate Turner in scraping and scratching with a knife. Turner even spit on his unfinished pictures!
Leigh’s bio pic won Best Actor at Cannes 2014 for Spall who wheezes and grunts like the pig he loves to dine on. Inarticulate in company at times he may have been, but not when faced by the tabula rasa of canvas, which he filled after actually experiencing the elements in long walks in the country side or sailing the sea. In one scene,we see Turner tying himself to a ship’s mast in order to appreciate a storm! Such were the extraordinary lengths to which he would pursue the Muse but like the rest of us, Turner was a flawed human being. His poor self-image ( I am a gargoyle) explains his treatment of women in his life. Which was, in one word, horrendous ( eg housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), his first mistress, Sarah (Ruth Sheen). Mercifully, he had a better relationship with her successor, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey) who looked after him even though he never acknowledged her in his life.
And though he was prosperous, he abandoned his children by Sarah and was loathe to part with his admittedly hard earned cash. When he could afford an apprentice, he exploits his ailing father William ( Paul Jesson)who is, let it be said, more than willing to help him in the studio where Turner reproduces outdoor sketches as oils and watercolours. And when an impoverished fellow painter Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage) begs him for a loan of hundred pounds,he offers him a fiver. This is the same Turner who will later refuse to sell his private collection to a wealthy bidder for hundreds of thousands of pounds but, instead, bequeath them to the people of Great Britain. When he died, the last word Turner uttered was – God. Surprising? I think not from the man who was hailed as “the painter of light ” even though a young Queen Victoria who says the blurred lines in one of his paintings must be from his failing eyesight! But then, what did royals know of art except to buy it? Let me ask in all humility: What do I know of art? Only that God is The Ultimate Artist.
Turner is remembered for many masterpieces. “The Fighting Temeraire” depicts an old gunship being tugged to her last berth to be broken up and sold for scrap reminded me of our very own INS Vikrant which suffered the same grievous fate.